Area schools prep for new handwriting requirements

Requires students to learn cursive before 5th grade, effective 2018

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By Michael Romain

Staff Reporter

Starting on July 1, 2018, all public elementary schools in the state will be required to offer at least a unit of instruction in cursive writing to students before they complete the fifth grade. 

Some local districts, like Brookfield-LaGrange Park District 95, are already preparing for the new requirements, while others, like Riverside District 96 are sitting pretty.

Last month, both the Illinois Senate and House of Representatives voted overwhelmingly to override Gov. Bruce Rauner's veto of the bill creating the requirement.

State representatives LaShawn Ford (D-8th), who represents North Riverside and part of north Brookfield, and Silvana Tabares (D-21st), who represents Riverside south of the BNSF tracks, were co-sponsors of the bill in the House.

All of the state representatives and state senators representing Brookfield, North Riverside and Riverside voted to override the governor's veto.

In his veto message, Rauner argued that the "legislation constitutes yet another unfunded mandate for school districts that will not protect the health or safety of Illinois students.

"If the General Assembly believes that cursive writing instruction should be required in elementary schools because it will improve student outcomes, it should be included in the Illinois State Learning Standards and funded accordingly." 

But supporters of the bill argued that the extra cursive instruction would give students a skill that's still essential — despite the changing technological landscape. 

"As technology has advanced in the fast-paced world we live in, the way we write and communicate with each other needs to adjust as well," said state Rep. Emanuel "Chris" Welch (D-7th), who introduced the bill, just after both houses overrode Rauner's veto.

"To make our young students stronger readers, writers and critical thinkers, our schools will again teach cursive so they can begin to develop these necessary skills," Welch said. 

"Cursive writing is a skill children will need throughout their lives," said state Sen. Kimberly Lightford (D-4th), who sponsored the bill in the Senate and represents North Riverside and a small part of far north Brookfield. "You cannot write a check, sign legal documents or even read our Constitution without an understanding of cursive writing."

In Riverside District 96, the new mandate won't have much, if any, effect on instruction. The district never stopped teaching cursive writing, though two years ago it moved the instruction from third-graders to second-graders.

"We have no issues; it's already part of our curriculum," said Merryl Brownlow, District 96's assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.

Cursive writing also was never dropped from the curriculum at Komarek School District 94, said Principal Jason Gold. Third-graders begin learning cursive in the second semester of that year and it's incorporated into the students' writing block.

"It's been important to Komarek for years, so we haven't been concerned about the mandate," Gold said.

But that's not the case in Brookfield-LaGrange Park 95, where cursive writing hasn't been part of the formal curriculum for years, according to Superintendent Mark Kuzniewski.

That means starting next school year, not only will the subject need to be inserted into the schedule, but many teachers will need a refresher course in how to teach the subject and new teachers will have to learn to do it.

"Just because you know how to do it doesn't mean you can teach it," Kuzniewski said. "For new teachers, it's not something they formally learned, and older teachers haven't been using that skill for a very long time."

Adding cursive writing to the curriculum, said Kuzniewski, means something else will have to be scaled back or eliminated. With schools facing increased and ever-changing assessment requirements, tougher achievement standards and funding uncertainties, Kuzniewski expressed frustration that the General Assembly focused on cursive wiring as a priority.

"Out of all the things in Springfield that have happened in the last year, that we're talking about cursive writing is an absolute shock to me as a school leader," Kuzniewski said.

Bob Uphues contributed to this report.

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