Where Sue Giblin works as an instructional aide at Grant-White Elementary, the neighborhood carries a significant number of apartments. Residents in the area tend to be less affluent, more transient, and black.
Where Giblin lives – within the attendance boundary of Garfield Elementary – the streets are lined with owner-occupied homes and filled mostly by white families. “Garfield Heights,” as the neighborhood has been dubbed by those in the Grant-White community, said Giblin.
For years, Grant-White Elementary and Garfield Elementary occupied opposite ends of the spectrum in terms of student performance, demographics and public perception. Families clamor to enroll their children at Garfield and maneuver to get out of Grant-White.
But parents and students from these neighborhoods could see a lot more of each other as administrators consider a plan to group students by grade-level rather than their home address. According to the proposal, kids on either side of the Eisenhower Expressway in junior-kindergarten through second-grade would attend one building and students in grades three through five would attend another. The first in a series of community meetings on that subject will be held tonight at Betsy-Ross Elementary.
“We have been unfortunate at Grant-White,” Giblin said of the school’s reputation. “For many years Grant-White has been given this label and it’s an unfair label. [Parents] just hear ‘Grant-White’ and they turn their head.”
The latest round of standardized test scores may be closing the gap between these neighborhoods, at least in the classroom. State report card data for 2008 has not been released to the public yet, but according to Superintendent Lou Cavallo, 82 percent of the students at Grant-White are meeting or exceeding federal benchmarks set by the No Child Left Behind Act. At Garfield, 84.9 percent of students are hitting these marks, he said.
“Grant-White is right up there with Garfield,” Cavallo said. “It is not a lower achieving school. It is a school achieving as high as our highest achieving school.”
Cavallo plans to make a full presentation to the school board Oct. 16 on the results of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, and is withholding report cards for the individual schools until then. He did, however, agree to discuss student performance with the Review, and to release the district’s report card, which provides consolidated results for the student population.
Meanwhile, Cavallo acknowledged that the ability to make such a bold claim regarding Grant-White’s test scores couldn’t have come at a better time. Between Oct. 1 and Oct. 8, he and school board members will meet four times for a give-and-take with parents on his proposal to consolidate students next year into what are called developmental learning centers.
The test scores also lend credence to the introduction of a new reading curriculum, said Cavallo, giving educators more confidence that they’re on the right track. Similar district-wide revisions are slated for the math and science curriculums.
School board Vice President Sean Blaylock has two children at Grant-White and said he is “very satisfied” with their education, and the school in general. As for the building’s reputation of being a blemish on the district, Blaylock said years of lower test scores laid the foundation for stereotypes to creep in.
“We have a small enough community where we can reach and teach each child regardless of race or income,” Blaylock said.
The district has capped class sizes at 20 and the financials are in good shape, said Blaylock, meaning Forest Park has the tools to boost learning. Because the restructuring proposal puts teachers of the same grade-level together, Blaylock said it has the potential to accelerate the impact of the new curriculums. Presently, the elementary schools house a single class for each grade.
“As a second-grade teacher, you won’t be able to get a cup of coffee without hearing from your teaching mates,” Blaylock said of the proposed restructuring.
Wendi Trotter, principal of Grant-White Elementary, did not return phone calls seeking comment on the proposal.
School board President Glenn Garlisch lives in the Garfield neighborhood and said that momentum to try and kill the restructuring plan is building. The other day he received a flyer in his mailbox urging parents to preserve the culture at Garfield Elementary.
“I want everyone to really hear this proposal before they start making up their minds, especially in that Garfield area,” Garlisch said. “From what I hear, they’re very upset with this proposal. They do not want it.”
For as long as Jamie Stauder has been the principal at Garfield Elementary, she’s heard the nickname Garfield Heights. It is part of an ongoing competition between all the buildings, she said, and Cavallo’s suggestion that the schools mix with one another is bringing that to a head.
Stauder said she has heard little from parents about the restructuring proposal, but historically Garfield families have regarded Grant-White Elementary as the ugly step-child of the school district. In years past that perception may have been valid, said Stauder, but today it’s unfair. Racial prejudice, she said, may be part of the problem.
No one at Garfield has ever said they don’t want their children in class with black students from low-income families, but Stauder said she can sense that tension in how people phrase their questions and introduce their comments.
Members of the Garfield Parent-Teacher Association did not return phone calls asking for comments on the proposal.
But the stereotypes go both ways, and if the district is going to implement what she described as a “phenomenal idea,” issues of race and socio-economics must be discussed in some fashion, said Stauder.
“The differences are a reality so they would have to be addressed,” Stauder said. “Even if the perception is that person’s reality, then you’ve got to address it.”