Making the Case for Quality
Illinois School District
Makes the Grade
by Andy Knopes
Like many public school districts in the United States, Pekin Public School District 108 in Pekin,
Illinois, is challenged with providing a quality education to its students on a limited budget. Struggling
with low test scores in the 1980s and 1990s, and searching for a continuous improvement model that
made sense, Pekin began a dramatic turnaround in 2000 when it discovered the Koalaty Kid program
and other quality tools advocated by the American Society for Quality (ASQ).
About Pekin Public School District 108
With a total of 11 schools, Pekin Public School District 108 includes a mix of elementary, intermediate,
and middle schools. The district’s 4,000 students are taught by 275 certified staff and 200 support staff,
giving it an approximate teacher-to-student ratio of 1:8 that is common in the United States. However,
as the Pekin district has a higher percentage of students from low-income families (46%) than the state
average (36%), its per-child spending of just over $6,600 per year is also below average—by approxi-
mately $2,000 per child.
At a Glance . . .
• Pekin District schools use
a range of quality tools to
Since the mid-1980s, when “continuous improvement” became a watchword among businesses and
maintain quality, with
other organizations, Pekin had experimented with a variety of approaches to help improve student test
student data folders as
scores. According to superintendent Don White, the district “fumbled around for something that would
one of the key tools.
work,” but could never achieve the results it desired.
• Two schools in the district
have earned No Child
Test scores held consistently around the state average, but the district was determined to raise them to
Left Behind Blue Ribbon
the next level. This meant finding an approach that would create a common language throughout the
organization and give the schools an objective way to measure their progress. When then-superintendent
• Although the Pekin District
Perry Soldwedel discovered the Koalaty Kid program in early 2000, he knew that Pekin had finally
has a higher percentage of
found what it had been searching for.
students from low-income
families and lower
Pekin’s Quality Journey
per-child spending than the
state averages, test results
consistently exceed the state In 1999, before Soldwedel had ever heard of Koalaty Kid, a focus group from the Pekin district was
average, discipline preparing to apply for the Lincoln Award, a state-level program based on the Malcolm Baldrige National
problems are low, and Quality Award Criteria. While researching the award requirements, Soldwedel took the team to a
teacher retention is high. Baldrige training conference. Unfortunately, the conference only confirmed what they had suspected after
talking with several other Illinois districts: despite Baldrige’s many good features, the process didn’t
The American Society for Quality ■ www.asq.org Page 1 of 4
seem to carry through to the school and teacher level. They felt conducted their own assessments and defined their primary prob-
that it lacked the human element that was critical to their efforts. lems, root causes, and improvement goals. While one school
designed and implemented a schoolwide management program
for students, another addressed the problem of low writing test
However, during that same Baldrige conference Soldwedel heard
results on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT).
about the Koalaty Kid program from another attendee. Something
about the program struck a chord with Soldwedel, and he and his
team investigated Koalaty Kid in detail. According to superin- Pekin schools currently use a range of tools as part of their efforts
tendent Don White, the program “seemed to be the answer they to maintain quality (see “Quality Tools” sidebar), but White points
had been looking for.” to student data folders as one of the keys to the Koalaty Kid
program. The concept is simple but effective: Each student is
tasked with maintaining a folder that charts his or her progress
Koalaty Kid is a quality-in-
Quality Tools against established goals. Some teachers ask students to track their
education initiative funded
progress on vocabulary tests, spelling tests, or content knowledge
largely through ASQ. Its
Schools within Pekin District 108 use a as measured by specific assessments. Other teachers require
broad range of tools to track progress and students to keep data folders that include writing samples. All
aims to create a school
to help meet their quality goals. These tools students are responsible for monitoring their own data and for
environment in which
include: being able to explain their goals for improvements. The use of data
elementary students sustain
• Affinity diagram folders “really gives the students buy-in and helps them understand
enthusiasm for learning,
• Bar charts where they are and where they need to go,” White says.
• Brainstorming engender pride in them-
• Check sheet selves and their Another example of how Pekin applies the PDSA model can
• Fishbone diagram
achievements, and strive to be seen at Wilson Intermediate School (approximately 700
meet high standards. The
• Goal sheets
program employs a body of
• Ground rules Figure 1 PDSA
knowledge derived from
tested and effective quality As detailed on its Web site, the Plan, Do, Study, Act (PDSA) cycle is the process that
• Issue bin
processes and tools Pekin School District 108 uses to improve the quality of teaching and learning. The
• Light voting
PDSA integrates both theory and practice to systematically create a more effective,
successfully used in busi-
• Lotus flower diagram data-driven approach to show and sustain continuous improvement.
ness, most notably the
• Mission statement
• Pareto diagram
(PDSA) cycle, shown in
• Plus/Delta Plan Define
Figure 1. More than 200 continuous
• Relations diagram the
schools worldwide partici- system
• Radar diagram
pate in the Koalaty Kid
• Run chart
program today. The middle
• Scatter diagram improvement ACT
and high school equivalent,
• Student data folders
known as Quality Keys, STUDY
For more information, visit the Pekin Web situation
uses the same principles as
site: http://www.pekin.net/pekin108/ DO
Koalaty Kid. results
quality_tools/index.html. Try out
During 2000, the Pekin improvement
District assembled teams of
teachers and staff to test the Koalaty Kid model. The program had
strong backing from the start, as all teams expressed enthusiasm for
The system (issue or activity) is defined.
participating in training and learning the new quality tools. At the
The current situation is assessed through the collection of data.
same time, Pekin’s middle schools initiated a classic PDSA model, The data are then analyzed to look for causes and possible solutions.
An improvement theory and new action plan are created.
based on Koalaty Kid, to address their improvement goals.
In the beginning, the district used a “trainer-of-trainers” model,
in which schools trained a select group of teachers and staff, Data are collected again to try out the improvement
DO theory and new improvement plan.
who then helped train more teachers and staff, and so on. By
2003, according to White, the district “went systemic” with the
program. Today the majority of teachers in the schools are STUDY
The results of the improvement plan are studied.
trained on the system, and White anticipates that all teachers
will be up to speed soon.
Action is taken based on the new knowledge.
Should this plan be implemented, modified, or abandoned?
As the schools moved forward with the new quality model, each Next steps are then taken to continuously improve the system.
maintained the flexibility to set its own course. The schools
The American Society for Quality ■ www.asq.org Page 2 of 4
students), where the staff recently identified a student behavior
issue that needed attention. According to White, the school was
especially concerned about the unacceptable levels of behavioral Wilson Intermediate’s success in reducing unwanted behaviors is
problems, such as acting up during recess and lunch. just one of many turnarounds within the Pekin District. Soon
after implementing the Koalaty Kid program and related quality
In 2003, teachers and staff initiated a PDSA cycle to address the initiatives, the positive results in Pekin schools were apparent.
behavior problems. After looking at documented behaviors, staff
at Wilson noticed that the number of classroom incidents and One of the best examples of the dramatic changes within the
referrals—that is, behaviors that warranted more than just a district is Dirksen Primary School:
warning—had increased significantly. They also discovered that
the root cause was a lack of staff implementation of the school’s • In 2003, Dirksen earned a No Child Left Behind Blue Ribbon
SCORE (safety, citizenship, ownership, respect, etiquette) Code, award. Presented annually, the award recognizes dramatic
a tool that allows students to track their own behaviors against increases in test scores by schools with more than 40% of
class-wide goals. students within poverty limits.
• Between 2000 and 2002, Dirksen exceeded overall state ISAT
Once they had identified the problem, Wilson’s staff and teachers scores by as much as 32%. At the same time, the school
agreed that all staff members would tie in the SCORE Code with significantly narrowed its achievement gap.
their individual classroom management plans. They came up • On the 2000 ISAT, Dirksen’s disadvantaged students lagged
with a more systematic SCORE card system, under which as far as 22 percentage points behind their fellow students.
teachers were asked to turn in monthly results of the numbers of By the 2002 ISAT, the gap shrank to as small as 2%.
cards issued. As the cards were collected, classroom and school-
wide run charts—another quality tool that collects data over Proving its success wasn’t a fluke, Dirksen has maintained and, in
specific points in time—were displayed, and staff spent time on some areas, even improved upon these high levels of achievement
the morning announcements talking about the school’s overall since receiving the coveted award. Figures 3 and 4 show Dirksen test
progress. Staff also asked teachers and students to begin using results for the 2003-04 and 2004-05 school years. In 2004, Willow
another quality tool, the radar diagram (see Figure 2), to track Primary School joined Dirksen as a recipient of the Blue Ribbon
understanding and implementation of the SCORE Code. School award. “It’s rare that you have two schools in a district gain
this type of recognition at the national level,” White said.
The result of these efforts, according to White, has been a
dramatic reduction in unwanted behaviors. The number of class- Also in 2004, two Pekin schools were invited to participate in a
room referrals decreased from 272 in the 2003-04 school year to national study of best practices conducted through a local univer-
174 in 2004-05. Overall misbehaviors also decreased in the same sity. To qualify for the study, school systems had to show
period, from 799 in 2003-04 to 660 in 2005-06. exemplary results on tests, specifically the Illinois Standards
Achievement Test, along with low expenditures. University
researchers selected Edison Junior High and Sunset Primary
School and, White notes, “They were most impressed by what
Figure 2 Radar Diagram Completed by a Wilson they found and the quality procedures in place.” In addition, Starke
Teacher Primary School (test results included in Figures 3 and 4) received
recognition as a most improved school in the state “because its test
SCORE Radar – Staff
scores had turned around so remarkably,” White said.
I understand the
Pekin’s successes have not been limited to its elementary
schools. In 2003, the district received a bronze award from the
Lincoln Foundation for Performance Excellence. This prestigious
award is given annually to Illinois educational institutions—in
this case, the entire Pekin District—that clearly exhibit the seven
May-05 Baldrige categories of excellence, including leadership, student/
stakeholder focus, process management, and results. In addition,
I understand the
1 I model the
data collection according to White, all of Pekin’s schools received “adequate”
process for SCORE
yearly progress ratings according to the provisions of the No
Child Left Behind Act.
2: The Rookie
3: The Natural
Overall, since implementing the quality tools discovered in 2000,
the Pekin School District’s test results consistently exceed the state
average, discipline problems are low, and teacher retention is high,
I enforce the
as are student and staff morale. And the awards continue to pile up.
The American Society for Quality ■ www.asq.org Page 3 of 4
Figure 3 Overall Performance, All State Tests Pekin’s Continuing Commitment to Quality
100 Today all 11 schools in Pekin District use the PDSA process to
help achieve and maintain quality. Teachers are excited to see
their efforts in school improvement pay off and to see students
80 75.6 74.2 74 benefiting. But, according to White, they are not resting on their
laurels yet. “The bottom line is that we’ve seen results and we’re
60 committed to this system. We now speak the same language and
instead of worrying about what tools might work and how to
implement them, we’re focusing on what the data are telling us
2004-05 and how to move forward.”
As further validation of Pekin’s success, many school districts
surrounding Pekin have approached White for more information
about the program. “We get so many visits from other districts to
see what we are doing to accomplish these educational gains that
Dirksen Starke District State
we have actually had to limit them,” he says. For example,
educators from Chicago suburbs have driven to the Pekin district
Figure 4 ISAT Performance to learn more about Koalaty Kid and Pekin’s systems,
curriculum, and methods for assessing students’ performance. It
Grade 3, Reading
is White’s hope that in the future, Pekin’s success will no longer
be the exception in Illinois, but the norm.
White offers the following advice to other schools and school
districts interested in learning from the Pekin example:
60 66.6 2003-04
If the organization knows its purpose and goals, it will have more
success. But regardless of the tools you choose—PDSA, Koalaty
Kid, Baldrige, or something else—make sure you latch onto some-
thing research-based and stick with it. You might see improved
processes if you jump around to different tools, but you won’t see
student improvement until you commit to one and follow through.
0 For More Information
Dirksen Starke District State
• Learn more about Pekin Public School District 108 and its
Grade 3, Mathematics
quality improvement programs. Visit
www.pekin.net/pekin108, where you can find school report
cards and samples of the tools used. You can also contact
superintendent Don White directly at 309-477-4740.
95.7 95.8 93.5
92.5 89.7 • Learn more about ASQ’s Koalaty Kid program. Visit
About the Author
Andy Knopes is a freelance writer for ASQ.
Dirksen Starke District State
The American Society for Quality ■ www.asq.org Page 4 of 4