Decades of doubt

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By Josh Adams

For the last seven years Robert Burdett has had at least one child in the Proviso Township High School District, which in Forest Park, makes him part of the minority.

His oldest daughter Victoria is now a student at the University of Illinois. Diane, the middle child, is a senior at Proviso East and the youngest, Natalie, is a freshman at the math and science academy here in the village. Academically and socially Burdett said his daughters have enjoyed a fair level of success in District 209, but the reputation the schools have for being a cesspool of political corruption, weak instruction and even violence has prompted doubts about his family's decision to send their kids to Proviso.

"I'm always getting looks," Burdett said of his conversations with other Forest Park parents. "'Really? Why would you do that,' they ask. At the back of my mind I question whether I've failed my kids."

District 209 Superintendent Stan Fields said he hopes to erase the skepticism with which Forest Park residents view the high schools, and at a recent community forum offered a timeline of three or four years to make serious strides toward that end. Next month, Fields has said he will propose very specific programs and policies to improve academic performance and ultimately boost the school's ratings with respect to standardized tests.

A recent comparison of District 209 with 90 other districts ranked the schools dead last in student performance.

"Our academic performance is going to go up as a result of the programs we implement next year," Fields said.

Meanwhile, more than 61 percent of K-8 students in Forest Park's District 91 elementary and middle schools are performing at or above grade level, according to the combined results of all state tests for the 2004-05 school year. Roughly 65 percent of K-8 students in the state tested at or above grade level for the same year.

Drawing more Forest Park kids into District 209 may help bolster test results, but Fields said his real interests in Forest Park lie with the parents and community members. The success of any school district, he said, begins with an engaged and supportive parent group.

The K-8 public schools in Forest Park graduate roughly 110 kids each year, according to Superintendent Randolph Tinder, and of those students, two-thirds will attend high school somewhere other than District 209. Forest Park is one of 10 communities that pays taxes to the high school district and does so to the tune of roughly $5 million per year.

Yet, in all three of District 209's high schools, Forest Park has only 236 students attending this year. During the 2005-06 school year, 196 Forest Park teens attended either Proviso East, Proviso West or the math and science academy, which opened its doors that year to accept its first freshman class.

In 2004-05, prior to the math and science academy, fewer than 175 Forest Park kids were enrolled in Proviso schools.

Steve Johnsen and his wife both graduated from Proviso East in the late 1970s, and Johnsen, an officer with the Forest Park Police Department and District 91 school board member, said they carry fond memories of their days at East. But all three of their children will attend private school instead of Proviso.

"Now we have a tradition," Johnsen said. "We like Fenwick really well."

Fenwick High School, a private Catholic school in Oak Park, is just one of the options families have after their kids complete the eighth-grade. According to Tinder, District 91 students typically go on to attend one of 20 area high schools. Fenwick's annual tuition is $8,950, according to the school's Web site.

When Johnsen's oldest child was sent to Fenwick, the Pirate alum said the primary considerations were safety and academics.

"My concern completely, is safety first and education second," Johnsen said. "When you're talking about your own children it's not a tough decision."

In Maywood, where Proviso East is located, violent crimes are committed in numbers that dwarf the same statistics in Forest Park. According to a Chicago Tribune analysis, 31 people were murdered in Maywood in 2003 and 2004 compared to two murders in Forest Park. Maywood residents reported more than 50 rapes in that time span, while Forest Park police handled eight such cases.

This statistical discrepancy between the two communities is comparable for robbery, assault, arson and theft. Maywood has more than 26,000 residents while Forest Park has fewer than 16,000.

Burdett though, said he has found little to justify fears of violence on school grounds.

"We have not found the schools to be unsafe," Burdett said. "I think the school is suffering from the reputation it got in the 60s."

Bob Cox graduated from Proviso East in 1972 and witnessed the race riots of 1968 during his freshman year. Cox, whose son is now a junior at Proviso West, said those days are long gone and people need to establish the truth for themselves.

"They make their decision based on the reputation," Cox said.

Cox and his son Andrew looked at seven different high schools before originally deciding on Proviso East. The family decided to "take this one month at a time," Cox said, keeping their son on a short leash and watching for any of the problems they had heard so much about. Andrew Cox struggled academically and after attending summer school at West, transferred there full-time.

Cox said his own research into the schools revealed that chunks of the poor reputation are not deserved, and that students can get a solid education in a safe environment.

"Probably the thing that will make the turnaround is the parents," Cox said.

Cox is prepping to run for a seat on the board of education in District 209 and is collecting signatures in time for the filing period later this month. Certain that things can be improved Cox said it is imperative that the students take center stage over the board's politics.

A stronger public high school district will benefit not only the students who attend, Fields said, but the overall economic development of the communities it serves. Given the tax investment, the potential economic impact and of course the education of future generations, Fields said Forest Park can't afford to ignore the district any longer.

"Staying away may not work," Fields said. "Let's get involved. Let's make it the very best."

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