Students in District 91 have long been sent to elementary schools within their neighborhoods with the hope that familiarity will breed excellence. Families that feel connected, that feel ownership, will work together to help everyone involved produce the brightest, most well-rounded minds. In Forest Park, this model has been more successful in some neighborhoods than others. Superintendent Lou Cavallo is suggesting we abandon a generations-old practice for the sake of efficiency and learning.
As it turns out, the enrollment projections of a few years ago are coming true and District 91 is shrinking. If we stay the course, says Cavallo, one of the elementary schools could be shuttered in a few years. One alternative – the one Cavallo is proposing – is to combine students by grade level and have the Eisenhower Expressway serve as the only attendance boundary. The bottom line for many parents is that their child’s education could be disrupted by having to change schools, sit with unfamiliar faces and possibly lose contact with siblings that may no longer be in the same building.
On the north side though, this change would be particularly dramatic as kids from a traditionally under-achieving school would mix with kids from a traditionally over-achieving school. And nowhere in the district are the demographics and the test scores so different than at Grant-White Elementary and Garfield Elementary.
Cavallo is hoping the latest round of standardized test scores will bolster public confidence in the curriculum at Grant-White. This year’s Illinois Standards Achievement Test results are certainly a positive, and an upward trend is developing. But parents at Garfield have seen a sustained pattern of excellence that simply doesn’t exist at Grant-White, and this will surely be an area of concern for them.
Two potential reactions to the superintendent’s proposal are that it shouldn’t be done because it breaks from tradition and that it would deflate the average scores on high-stakes exams. Economics trump tradition, in our view, and let’s not forget that a big part of this proposal has to do with efficiency. As for student performance, the school board, the teachers and the superintendent have worked very well together in the last year. They’ve been aggressive, focused and thus far successful in improving education. This credibility should be enough to bring everyone to the table with an open mind.
But the elephants in the room are race and poverty.
As the story that begins on our front page reveals, Grant-White is 70 percent black and only 3 percent white. As a percentage, more than double the number of students at Grant-White qualify for school lunch subsidies. It is crucial that the school board hear an honest assessment from parents of how these facts are being weighed. These are dicey subjects, but these tensions are bubbling under the surface. If the schools are combined and prejudices are allowed to fester, the potential for a much bigger problem swells with time.