Enhancing Peoria’s Schools

Dr. Grenita Lathan
by Don White

Whether building relationships or improving facilities, Dr. Lathan is working hard to realize the district’s mission.

Since joining Peoria School District 150 as superintendent of schools in 2010, Dr. Grenita Lathan has worked steadily to improve student achievement and professional development for staff, enhance technology and the learning environment, and improve connections with the community. According to her, it’s all part of a carefully crafted, three-year strategic plan that takes the district through 2014.

“Our mission is to ensure that each student reaches his or her fullest academic and personal potential and is a well-balanced citizen,” says Dr. Lathan. “The strategic plan addresses specific goals and objectives, and I’m proud of what we’ve accomplished so far.”

Dr. Lathan notes several key accomplishments on her watch, including improved accountability for students and staff; stronger, broad-based programs in professional development; and more consistency in standards and procedures across the district. “We’ve also improved access to high-quality resources and supplies, and expanded access to technology,” she says. “We’ve infused technology into the schools, with smart boards, iPads and computer labs. Our goal is to have a smart board in every classroom. We’ve made a big push to put technology into the hands of every student.”

Building Relationships
Reflecting on her personal accomplishments as well, Dr. Lathan points to the many relationships she has developed since joining the district. “I pride myself on being accessible,” she says. “I enjoy meeting the students, teachers, parents and community members. Building those relationships is very important. We also have a strong relationship with the mayor—the city has been very supportive of our educational agenda. We meet often and talk about current issues, such as what’s impacting the schools, and what’s impacting the city.”

Those relationships include partnerships and associations with many local businesses, through programs like Project Lead the Way, Adopt-a-School partnerships such as the 3rd Grade Reading Buddies program, and STEM education. “Our connections with businesses in the community are extremely important to us,” Dr. Lathan says. “Our job is to prepare students for the workforce. We are constantly working to get a better idea of employers’ training and skill set needs. For example, we have received feedback from some businesses that workforce ‘soft skills,’ such as reporting to work on time and staying dedicated to the task or job assigned, could be improved. We have partnered with Junior Achievement to help our students improve those skills and prepare for future careers.”

Improving Facilities
Dr. Lathan has also focused on improving the physical learning environment, recognizing the advantages that new or modernized facilities offer to both students and teachers. “Facilities need to be conducive to learning,” she says. “Many of our facilities are older. More than half of our buildings are not air-conditioned. We are trying to attract students to our schools, and if you have beautiful facilities that are not only warm and welcoming, but able to meet the educational needs of the 21st century, they will come.

“Safety and security is our number one priority,” Dr. Lathan continues. “It is also important to have a lot of natural light, and for students and teachers to be able to move freely throughout a building with flexible classroom space. Our gyms need to be competitive for athletic events. Students need to be able to access technology on a daily basis, and again, they should be able to move throughout a building and access technology in every space, including the media center and all the classrooms.”

Dr. Lathan points to the recent addition and improvements at Lincoln K-8 School as one example, where a new main entry and improved traffic flow have enhanced safety and security. A new media center, cafeteria and classrooms designed by the Peoria office of Dewberry provide state-of-the-art spaces for students along with panoramic views of the city’s East Bluff. Classrooms feature technology and enhanced acoustics with amplification systems. The new spaces are filled with natural light, which has been proven in numerous studies to enhance student and teacher productivity and achievement.

Dr. Lathan appreciates Lincoln’s ability to connect students with nature through the inspiring views and access to the outdoors. “Connecting with nature is a major aspect of this school, and is important for all schools. When facilities are designed to view and connect with nature, that expands learning opportunities.”

The improvements at Lincoln, as with other recent school renovation and repair projects, have bolstered student self-esteem and improved community pride, says Dr. Lathan. “Students, staff and families have a new sense of pride about Lincoln,” she says. “The district made an investment in this school, and it has helped to reconnect the school with families and the community.”

Continuing the Progress
As she looks to the future, Dr. Lathan hopes to continue to improve school environments and make further progress toward the goals set in the strategic plan. “We need to follow our plan and keep it up to date, which should include finding revenue streams to enhance each of our 27 schools and other facilities” she says. “Our future plan will also include more of a focus on special education, and further enhancement of our professional development programs to address the state’s common core standards.”

With the broad record of achievement she’s overseen to date, and the strong relationships she is building within the community, Dr. Grenita Lathan should continue to find success in helping Peoria School District 150 realize its important educational mission for each and every child. iBi

Don White is a principal with Dewberry and director of the firm’s Peoria office.