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We have tried to beef up coverage of schools and education, not only because our readers specifically asked for this coverage, but because the way a town educates its children says a lot about what is important, and whether that town will thrive in the future.
Forest Park takes pride in its elementary schools and middle school. District 91 has highly trained teachers who know their students well, thanks to small class sizes. What other town in Illinois has an "All School Picnic" where private and public schools get together for a day of kid fun in the park sunshine? What other town has true diversity working so well, where a generation of children has grown up enjoying real friendships with children of all races? Teachers and administrators are unafraid to look at where children need to grow, recognize that even bright children need to be pushed to learn and grow more, and are enthusiastic about helping them get there.
But high school anxiety is the dark cloud hanging over Forest Park parents. Proviso Township High School District 209 is perceived by many as an inadequate, even impossible choice to make for their children's future. It is not healthy for community members to plan on selling their house and moving away when their child gets to high school age - or face staggering private high school bills. Is this rational? What does it do to a community when a large percentage of parents threaten to disengage? As a magnet school, PMSA does not have room for the entire high school student body of Forest Park, nor should it.
In the early 1900s, temperance-minded Yankee-derived citizens of Oak Park and River Forest cut out the village of Harlem, with its German immigrants and their beer-hall culture. According to oral histories, fistfights erupted in the streets when Harlem residents were told they were now in Proviso, with only one bridge spanning the Desplaines River at Lake Street. Since then, Forest Park's self-image only reluctantly acknowledges Proviso.
But the tough economy is causing parents to look again at Proviso high schools. Can they be fixed? Many of our residents attended Proviso, even Mayor Calderone. We have to look in the mirror and realize that we are in part to blame for "The Proviso Way." We pay for it. We vote (or don't bother to vote) for the school board. Fear and a lack of understanding lead parents to pretend that the high school across the river is not there. But it is there. What if it is your only option? Is it as bad as we hear?
A small group of Forest Parkers, built by social media, met at the Community Center this week to think about District 209. They understand we are not alone. Ten other Proviso communities are in the same bind.
Perhaps the high schools can become a resource for all if we can engage and bring a sense of ownership. That will take a remarkable commitment, but is there really any other choice?