Debbie Wirkiowski has some misgivings about sending her daughter to Grant-White Elementary. Most specifically, she’s seen the test scores that say as recently as 2006 only 50 to 60 percent of students were meeting grade-level standards.
However, she has also been paying attention to the upward trend that now has Grant-White students scoring at the top of the district.
Her daughter, a first-grader, is enrolled in an area Catholic school, but Wirkiowski is giving serious thought to joining Forest Park’s public education system. She’s been to three meetings now on the proposed restructuring of the district that, if approved in December, would combine students in Grant-White with the district’s perennial achievers at Garfield Elementary.
“I’m interested in all the options,” Wirkiowski said after the district’s Oct. 29 meeting. “Catholic school is expensive.”
Many of the 25 or so parents who attended the meeting did not offer any alternatives to the plan being considered by the school board, as was the purpose of the gathering. Two parents, both with children at Garfield Elementary, asked that the board give consideration to using multi-age classrooms. The practice is used widely in other districts across the country and could alleviate many of the problems caused by a shrinking student body that administrators are hoping to address, they said.
Chuck Hoehne was roundly praised by parents and administrators for discussing the multi-age format used in the elementary grades at Whittier Elementary School in Oak Park. Students would be grouped according to their ability, according to a definition of multi-age classrooms posted on Whittier’s Web site. Children from different grade levels could be taught by the same teacher, but the instruction will vary.
“The plan does have, obviously, flexibility,” Hoehne said. Such freedom may be helpful in controlling class sizes, but it can also be a demanding environment for teachers, he said, who must constantly adjust their strategies.
Hoehne said his wife is a teacher at the Oak Park school.
Board members in District 91 are weighing a proposal from the superintendent that would scrap neighborhood attendance boundaries and dedicate each elementary school to a specific range of grade levels. Currently, each of the four elementary schools in Forest Park houses students in grades K-5. The superintendent, Lou Cavallo, is suggesting that one school on the north and south sides of town be used for kindergarten through second grade, while the remaining buildings instruct third, fourth and fifth grade.
The Eisenhower Expressway would serve as the dividing line, requiring students at Garfield and Grant-White to share classrooms much sooner than they might at the middle school. On the south side, Field-Stevenson and Betsy Ross students would do the same.
School board member Joan White said she and board President Glenn Garlisch will visit the Oak Park school. White said multi-age classrooms “are good,” and that as a child she attended a school that followed this model.
The board’s vice president, Sean Blaylock, said it’s easy to find examples of where various programs have succeeded. This only makes it harder for him to decide which program might be best for Forest Park.
“I’d be more interested to find a school that said, ‘ever since we went to fill-in-the-blank, the school has deteriorated,'” Blaylock said.
Lisa Haeger and her husband didn’t address the board with any specific recommendations on how the district might better manage its resources as student enrollment declines, but commented repeatedly that they don’t have enough information to support any proposal. Haeger credited Cavallo for opening a blog on the district’s Web site, but said she checks the site daily and finds it to be stale.
The issue of busing and transportation between the different attendance centers is still a major concern, said Haeger. Cavallo is expected to provide more details on those logistics this month at the board’s next meeting.
“I’m not wholly saying I’m against the proposal, I would just like to be a little more comfortable,” Haeger said.