Forest Park Elementary School District 91 Board of Education meetings are not particularly known for fireworks, but Thursday night was a notable exception.
Six community members, all black except one, attended the meeting to address the seven board members, six of whom are white. The initial topic was the lack of black teachers in the district, which was also brought up at the board’s previous meeting and reported in last week’s Review.
But the discussion also touched on parents’ disagreements with the district’s disciplinary practices.
Parents reacted especially strongly to Tinder’s comments that the district hires the best teachers it can, and that the lack of black teachers “is only an issue if someone wants something to pick at.”
“We’re good enough to be substitutes but we’re not good enough to be teachers?” asked Lisa Sutton, the mother of a fourth grader at Betsy Ross who completed her student teaching at Field Stevenson in December.
Sutton was responding to Tinder’s comments that the school is obligated to find the best teachers it can, regardless of race, a position Tinder maintained throughout Thursday’s meeting.
“Our policy is to get the best teachers, not the best black, Hispanic or Indian teachers,” said Tinder. “Our policy says that no preference will be given because of race.”
Nearly half of District 91’s students are black, but the district employs only three black teachers, all of whom work at the middle school.
Monique Green, a parent of two kindergarteners at Grant White Elementary School, disagreed with Tinder’s statement that the school is, in fact, hiring the best teachers available.
“We want positive African-American role models,” she said. “A teacher straight out of college is the best you can get?”
Grant White principal Wendy Trotter, who is black, said that she has made an effort to recruit minority teachers, but that due to either the commute to Forest Park or the low pay in comparison with other districts, she has been largely unsuccessful.
“It’s certainly not because I haven’t tried, or because this board hasn’t tried or this superintendent hasn’t tried,” she said.
Trotter also noted that hiring young teachers isn’t necessarily a negative. “Sometimes it’s better to get a brand new teacher than a veteran teacher who’s tired and doesn’t want to do it anymore,” she said.
The district, Tinder said, posts job openings internally before posting them online. The principals usually receive a surplus of resumes during the summer months, which they draw from if a job opens during the school year. They don’t know the race of the applicants until they interview a select few standouts.
Another heated issue that arose was an alleged increase in disciplinary problems among students at Forest Park Middle School. The topic was brought up by a parent who was frustrated that her son had been suspended for fighting back when hit by another student.
“I send my child to get an education, not to be threatened,” she said. “Let me know what he’s doing wrong and I’ll correct him, but I’ll let you know what you’re doing wrong; you’re not protecting him.”
Tinder said that the school merely enforced a longstanding policy that when two students fight, both are punished regardless of who instigated the fight.
“We have to go by the policy … that’s how we keep our schools safe,” said board member Glenn Garlisch. “Kids know you do not engage in a fight. I don’t want to hear the story from this kid or that kid.”
Still, some parents feel that this policy is the problem.
“If when you report bullying and tell the teacher nothing happens, then you tell principal but its not enough to stop the bullying, the kid has enough, and the only thing left is to take it upon himself and he lashes back, and they both get suspended,” said Ingrid Znika, a former substitute teacher and member of the district’s Citizens Advisory Council.
“Where’s the support system before it gets to that point? Let’s get things in place that prevents this from escalating. Where’s the monitor in the hallway?”
Znika did not attend the meeting, but recently wrote a letter to the Review expressing concerns similar to those expressed.
Znika, who emphasized that she still believes in Dist. 91 schools, said she has noticed an increase in disciplinary issues in recent years.
“There are a lot of young teachers, and I feel there is a generation of teachers who are a little more permissive and more lenient,” she commented.
Znika also noted that teachers have a tendency to overlook frequent troublemakers.
“Sometimes it’s easier to discipline the good kids because they know it’ll be taken seriously at home,” she said.
Substitute teacher Audreya Boyd, who later joined in the questioning regarding the lack of minority teachers, said that middle school principal Karen Bukowski and assistant principal Beth Kovacic are devoted to maintaining a safe learning environment.
“I do know that the principal and assistant principal do walk the halls,” she said, noting that in her experience substituting at the district administrators have always shown concern when a problem arose.
Tinder said that there has not been any notable increase in discipline problems in recent years.
“We find the behavior of kids in our middle school better than most”there’s certainly nothing unusual,” he said, noting that when he recently visited the school during lunchtime, he observed “kids just being kids.”
“Any taxpayer is allowed to just walk in and take a tour of the school … see if you see the fights, see if you see gangbanging, and judge for yourself … its my experience that you can hear a pin drop in that school,” said board member Steve Johnsen.