Sheridan Elementary School Principal Jim Cooper is retiring as 28 years in school administration. (Photo by Eric Stock/WJBC)
By Eric Stock
BLOOMINGTON - Not much can stop a grade school student in his or her tracks.
Unless you are a magician. Students huddle around Sheridan Elementary School Principal Jim Cooper spellbound as he plays the old coin-behind-the-ear trick on one of his students.
Cooper has been a magician of sorts for the last 12 years, running a grade school in a low-income neighborhood amid dwindling education funding and a stagnant economy.
Cooper, 57, is retiring as principal of the District 87 school on Bloomington's west side. He's been in school administration for 28 years.
Cooper said Sheridan school has always been affected by poverty, which is why the school has taken the extra step of providing breakfast - not before school like most do, but in the classroom.
"We do a working breakfast right when the students walk in the classroom in the morning," Cooper said, otherwise "many of our boys and girls would go hungry without it."
The school also offers free lunch to every student, and sends students home with backpacks with food and provides them with school supplies.
The school's sense of pride is never higher than on Labor Day Weekend, when the school hosts its Back-To-School Parade.
"Our community, our students, our staff have all said this is important to them to know that politicians take that Friday morning before Labor Day off specifically to be here at school," Cooper said.
But the school hasn't escaped the challenges that afflict many schools in impoverished areas. Sheridan is currently on the Illinois State Board of Education's Academic Early Warning List Year 2 following two consecutive years of failing to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) for reading and math for two consecutive years (and in reading in 2010), a federal No Child Left Behind requirement that enables students at those schools to transfer to a school of their choice.
Cooper suggested that standardized assessments have taken too large of a role in the classroom since NCLB became law.
"Assessment was not primary to what we did," Cooper said, referring to the time when he started in administration. "What we did then was so much more driven by curriculum. When you measure what is to be learned, it does help boys and girls, but it has to be done in a reasonable way."
Cooper plans to stay involved in education, probably helping his wife, Julie, who teaches fifth grade at Bent Elementary. But the sense of community he helped foster at Sheridan will stay with him.
"We are genuine. We say 'How can we take care of you?,' and mean that, not just say it as a motto. It's a part of our life," Cooper said.
District 87 has appointed Jenifer McGowan to replace Cooper for the 2013-14 next school year.