Gurnee District 56, a Beacon of Light

Posted by Colleen Pacatte on 5/11/2018 7:00:00 AM

Guest Blogger: Dr. John R. Hutton, Superintendent


I remember my first job very vividly.  It was in the fall of 1974, and I was going to be a middle school mathematics teacher in the same school system that I had graduated high school from four years earlier, Portage Township Schools in Portage, Indiana.  I wanted to work anywhere but there because I did not want to be little Johnny Hutton any more.  Well, sometimes you have to accept the opportunity that presents itself, and Grissom Middle School would be the first stop of my new career.

Little Johnny Hutton


Grissom was a new, innovative open concept school.  Colleges and Universities were often times behind the public schools, and I received no training at Ball State University on how to survive in an open concept school. Survive is the right word too. Not only did I not have any college preparation for teaching in an open concept school, I also did not receive any professional development (PD) from my new employer on tools that I could use in this new environment.  In fact, none of the teachers, even the veteran teachers, received any PD prior to opening the new school.


I remember the first day of school as if it was yesterday.  I walked into the teachers’ office that housed the eight seventh grade teachers in the four academic disciplines and was greeted by a veteran teacher who said, “You just made the biggest mistake of your life teaching here.”  It was like someone took a pin and punctured my excitement balloon.  About 20 minutes later, 200 students without schedules showed up in our teaching area, and it was our job to organize them into learning groups. Yes, survival was the right word. 


As I look back and compare 1974 to today, I realize that as crazy as my first job was, I truly could see that the open concept school was a very progressive idea at that time.  I can equate open concept schools to the flexible learning environments we have successfully established at Gurnee District 56. The curriculum I used to teach mathematics was individualized work sheets that permitted students to work at their own pace and required the demonstration of mastery of the skill content before a student could move to the next skill.  In today’s world, we would call this self paced classrooms. 

Grissom Middle School did not survive because day by day, the staff tried to create ways to partition the area into traditional classrooms.  The individualized curriculum became monotonous to students, and before long, I was teaching mathematics just as I had been taught to do during my undergraduate work at Ball State University.  Within eight years, permanent walls were erected at Grissom Middle School, and it became part of the new Portage High School campus.

The new school had no chance to succeed.  Without training, teachers always revert to teaching they way they were taught.  It is part of our human DNA, but it is interesting that the concepts being considered 44 years ago had merit and only failed because the system did not have the capacity to make them work.

JH 1

That leads me to today.  We have established a climate at Gurnee District 56 that has created a capacity to accept change.  That is why our 1:1 has been so successful, and we have received numerous awards, including the Distinguished School District in the United States from ISTE in 2017.  We like to look at ourselves as a laboratory school that keeps searching for ways to improve the learning environment for all students.  Some of our pilots and trials have not worked, but that has been a learning experience too, while some have provided us great hope for our future.

Children deserve our absolute best, and our absolute best should be measured by the opportunities we provide students to become their absolute best.  We can not ever dismiss an idea because it might be too difficult to implement or have a gut feeling it will not work.  Improving the educational environment for children must be an annual, monthly, and daily endeavor.  As Jim Collins said, “The biggest deterrent to being great is being good.”  Good is never good enough at Gurnee District 56.

I am confident that there will not be any educational initiatives that die on the vine here, like the open concept school did in Portage in 1974.  The commitment to learning for all children is too strong here, and I know this District will continue to be the beacon of light for educators across these United States of America to follow as they navigate treacherous waters in finding the best educational path for all learners. 

JH 2

I have learned a lot over the last 44 years and am so happy that education was my chosen career.  As I approach my final days of my long, educational career, I can say without hesitancy this has been the best job I have ever had, and I want to thank all of you for the opportunity to be your superintendent.  I want to wish Gurnee District 56 godspeed!  May your light always emanate brightly.