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A plan that would radically change elementary education in Forest Park was presented at last week’s District 91 school board meeting.

The idea, which Superintendent Lou Cavallo said would eventually save a school building from closing, is to fine-tune the district’s four elementary schools, all of which are K-5. Under this proposal, two buildings would serve the younger grades and two buildings would serve the older grades.

A school building with fewer grades is called a developmental, or grade-level, center. A grade-level center would be either for junior kindergarten through second grade, or JK-2, or for third through fifth graders, or 3-5.

The proposal that Cavallo presented Thursday night would make for a JK-2 and a 3-5 school on the south side of Forest Park and for a JK-2 and a 3-5 school on the north side of the village.

South of the Eisenhower Expressway, Betsy Ross School would be JK-2, while Field-Stevenson School would be 3-5. On the north side of Eisenhower, Garfield and Grant-White would be paired for one school to be JK-2 and the other to be 3-5.

“Half of our children would have to change schools,” said District 91 Superintendent Lou Cavallo.

The idea behind the proposal is to end the last-minute shifting of kids to different schools that occurs when some schools have grades with more than 20 students while other schools have fewer students in that grade.

“Our schools are not at capacity, specific grades are,” Cavallo said.

While most of the current schools have only one section at each grade level, the grade-center approach would add flexibility by having multiple classrooms of each grade at each school. Parents would know for sure what school their child would attend long before the first day of school.

The pluses

The approach would make it easier to balance enrollment at schools without the last-minute changes that now upset so many children and parents.

“It is easier to allocate staff within a building if there are multiple teachers at each grade-level,” Cavallo said. “Scheduling is much easier.”

Having more than one classroom for each grade at every school would promote teacher collaboration, especially for new programs, according to Cavallo.

“Some of the innovative educational strategies that are out there we haven’t even talked about. We can’t even investigate them,” Cavallo said. “We can’t do it because of our size. Things like … multi-age classrooms. We simply don’t have that opportunity here. We would have those opportunities. I’m not saying that we would do that next year, but we would have those opportunities in the future.”

Other benefits of this proposal, according to Cavallo, are the opportunity to keep class sizes to 20 and the chance for all students, no many where they live, to go to junior kindergarten. And, Cavallo said, the proposal would lead to better racial balance in Forest Park schools, especially by combining the Grant-White and Garfield attendance areas into one.

“Our attendance centers (schools) are not racially balanced,” Cavallo said. “I think it’s very important to provide racial balance in our district.”

If no changes are made, current enrollment projections show that District 91 would likely have to close a school by 2012, Cavallo said. This proposal would keep all the current schools open for the foreseeable future.

Neighboring school districts are going with the grade-level plan. Among them are River Forest, Westchester, Cicero and Darien.

The school board has until December, when a vote on the proposal is scheduled, to review reaction from the community. The plan does have its drawbacks, Cavallo told the board. “The concerns are real and they’re not small,” he said.

The minuses

The biggest drawback is the need for kids to make more transitions. They would have to switch schools as they got from second grade to third grade and again as they go from fifth grade to middle school.

“In general, you want to avoid transitions,” Cavallo said.

There’s also the likely loss of community that a neighborhood school has. “Neighborhood schools are obviously big with me,” Cavallo said.

Siblings would be separated with perhaps a second grader at one school and a fourth grader at another.

Another drawback is that third, fourth and fifth graders who live south of Roosevelt Road and attend Betsy Ross would have to cross Roosevelt Road to get to Field-Stevenson.

Cavallo that if the plan was adopted, the district would likely bus the younger kids, and perhaps all students who live south of Roosevelt Road, to Field-Stevenson. The added cost of this busing would be balanced by the reduced cost of transporting kids who now are forced to change schools because of class balancing.

The board’s reaction

School board members listened attentively Thursday night and asked questions of Cavallo. Some have already formed an initial impression.

“I think the positives outweigh the negatives,” said District 91 school board member Frank Mott. “It’s going to be rough the first year. It’s going to be a very big change.”

Mary Turek said that she liked the way the proposal would allow parents to know for certain where their kids would attend school far ahead of the fist day of school and end the last minute switching of kids to different schools to balance out class size at specific grade levels.

“This has been a problem for a very long time,” Turek said. “People want to know. They want certainty.”

School board president Glenn Garlisch said he wanted to wait to hear community input before making a comment. Getting that community input is the next step and Cavallo has moved quickly to start to find out what parents think of his proposal. A special joint meeting, yet to be scheduled, will be held with the school board and the village council. Town meetings will be held in each of the district’s schools during the first week of October so that parents can learn about the proposal and voice their opinions.

“Community input will be critical,” Cavallo said. “It will be an important part of the decision.”