Parents left wanting for a chance to give their own voice to the debate over a restructuring proposal in District 91 may find that opportunity this month. However, this fifth forum to be hosted by the schools will not be an opportunity to blast the controversial proposal, Superintendent Lou Cavallo said. Rather, administrators are looking for other ways to nix the practice of class balancing in the face of a declining enrollment.
“People want the opportunity to have another dialogue,” Cavallo said. “We’re going to try and focus it on solutions to the problem and not problems with the solution.”
Following a round of meetings held at each of the district’s four elementary campuses early this month, some community members objected to being forced to write their comments onto note cards rather than addressing the superintendent directly. Cavallo was the lone administrator on stage during those meetings, and attempted to build confidence in his proposal.
At the next meeting on Oct. 29 at Grant-White Elementary, the school board will share the spotlight with parents.
Board members are expected to vote in December whether to trade Forest Park’s tradition of K-5 schools that serve specific neighborhoods. On the table is a proposal to group students by grade level so that kindergarten through second-grade attends one building, and third-grade through fifth-grade attends another. The only attendance boundary in the public school district would be the Eisenhower Expressway.
The middle school, which houses grades six, seven and eight, would not be affected.
The superintendent has said the change is necessary for several reasons. Student enrollment is expected to decline, but not in a uniform manner. In the current set up there is one classroom for each grade per building. If there are too few students in a particular grade level in any given building, it becomes cost prohibitive to retain teachers. Those students are then forced to attend other elementary schools in the district, often upsetting parents, according to Cavallo.
On the north side of town, this would mean combining students from Grant-White Elementary and Garfield Elementary. Grant-White Elementary is seen by many as an inferior school to Garfield Elementary. Historically, Garfield students have outpaced their Grant-White peers on standardized tests. Grant-White is also the district’s most racially segregated building, with a student body that is 70 percent black.
Parents from the Garfield neighborhoods who attended the earlier meetings on the proposal denied harboring any racial or social prejudices about integrating the two schools, though school board members and administrators said they suspect those issues are in play.
The practice of shuttling students between schools also occurs when there are too many students in a given classroom. District 91 has long adhered to a cap of 20 students per class.
By grouping students of the same grade in one building, according to Cavallo, it will be easier to maintain class sizes. The change would also benefit teachers, and the quality of their instruction, since they would no longer be the only grade-level instructor in their building, he said.
But there are drawbacks, which have been pointed out by detractors and acknowledged by district officials.
Widely agreed upon is the risk of disenfranchising parents who, through volunteering and other means, have built a relationship with their neighborhood educators. There are also logistical concerns with respect to busing and scheduling after-school events so that parents who have children at more than one school don’t have to decide which activity to skip.
Board member Mary Win Connor has contacted schools across the country looking for insight into how they implemented similar changes. Primarily what she wants to hear, she said, is a reason not to approve the change.
“The majority of what I’ve heard says it’s a good thing,” Connor said. “On the other hand, I’m looking for something that’s a deal killer.”
As for how she might vote in December, Connor said she isn’t yet leaning in either direction.
“If there’s something out there that would be better, faster, simpler – that would be great,” Connor said.
School board President Glenn Garlisch said the class-size cap has always been an important component of the schools. If the smaller classroom setting is to be maintained, he said, the community will have to accept a certain level of change. Next week’s meeting is another opportunity to gauge what that difference might look like.
“I haven’t heard anything that’s not making even more of a drastic change,” Garlisch said.