With more than 60 parents, teachers and community members listening, Superintendent Lou Cavallo was firm in his message that a plan to restructure the district’s schools will be voted up or down by the board – and not the loudest people in the room. Questions and suggestions are welcome, he said, but emotions must be checked at the door.
“There will be no vote of the parents,” Cavallo said of his proposal. “This isn’t a referendum.”
The Oct. 1 meeting at Betsy Ross Elementary was the first in a series to be held at each elementary school on whether to regroup students by their grade level rather than their address. Cavallo’s pitch to the school board that District 91 adopt “developmental centers” would do away with traditional neighborhood schools in Forest Park. South of the Eisenhower Expressway, students in junior kindergarten through second grade would attend Betsy Ross, and students in grades third through fifth would attend Field-Stevenson. The same applies for the north-side schools, with Garfield serving the younger kids and Grant-White housing the older ones.
An expected decline in enrollment, greater efficiencies and boons to the learning environment are the reasons Cavallo said this change is needed. The purpose of neighborhood meetings, said Cavallo, is to hear from parents why they might support or oppose the change.
“Nothing is carved in stone right now,” Cavallo said at the Oct. 1 meeting. “I probably should have said that up front. This is something that the board is considering.”
The superintendent also met with Grant-White parents on Monday, Garfield parents Tuesday, and is slated to make his final appearance at Field-Stevenson tonight. Members of the school board are expected to vote on the proposal in December.
The response from audience members at the first of these meetings was mixed, with some parents openly seething over the proposal and others more receptive. In fielding questions and comments, Cavallo stood alone at the front of the room while school board members and district administrators lingered in the back.
Parents were not allowed to stand and speak directly to the superintendent, and instead were asked to write their remarks on a piece of paper.
Cavallo said that any question he did not answer during the meeting would garner a response if the writer provided a phone number or e-mail address. When all the meetings have been held, the superintendent said he will begin blogging on the issues on the district’s Web site.
“It didn’t feel like a dialogue,” Tristen George, a Betsy Ross parent said after the meeting.
George and her husband Chris both found the format to be “a little limiting,” but acknowledged that it was a more efficient way to keep the meeting moving.
David Bishop, another Betsy Ross parent, said overall he was pleased with the superintendent’s remarks. His greatest concern is maintaining smaller class sizes, and he and his wife hope their investment in a Montessori kindergarten isn’t lost. Betsy Ross’ greatest attribute is its small size, he said.
Bishop said he noticed the audience was predominantly white and, as a minority, is worried that any anger about racial balancing as one aspect of the changes will put him on the defensive.
“As a minority, I look around the room and don’t see many other minority parents here,” Bishop said.
At the two north-side campuses, the racial mix would be significantly altered if the board votes to approve the proposal. Grant-White is predominantly black – 70 percent of its student body – and some 46 percent of its students are described by the state as being from low-income families. At Garfield, 22 percent of the students come from low-income households. Thirty-five percent of the students are white and 36 percent are black.
Following the first meeting at Betsy Ross, Cavallo said it’s obvious that his proposal is stirring people’s emotions.
“There is a great sense of loss over something that they have right now,” Cavallo said. “It’s their kid, their neighborhood, their school and I’m taking something away.”