For the past three months, parents and school officials have tried to educate one another on teaching strategies. They’ve visited other districts and discussed the successes and failures of different classroom models, trying to find the best fit for their own schools. Debates stretched late into the night.
Accusations of racism and elitism have also erected new barriers.
As District 91 board members consider a proposal to restructure the elementary schools in Forest Park, impassioned appeals on both sides have reigned since the plan was unveiled in September. On Thursday, Dec. 11, the debate will end and a vote will be taken.
“I’m not nervous at all because I see myself ideologically as a trustee for the children,” school board Vice President Sean Blaylock said of making his decision.
Members of the board were reluctant to reveal their leanings in the days leading up to what could be a defining moment in their tenure. Several, including Blaylock, said they had reached a decision on whether to scrap the K-5 elementary school structure in favor of a plan that splits students into what are called developmental learning centers. The youngest students on the north side of the Eisenhower Expressway would attend Garfield Elementary until they reach the third grade, when they would be moved to Grant-White.
South of the Eisenhower, things would work a little differently, according to Superintendent Lou Cavallo’s proposal. Students would attend Betsy Ross until the completion of their first-grade year and grades 2-5 would be housed in Field-Stevenson. Betsy Ross simply has less classroom space, according to Cavallo, and cannot accommodate as many students.
For months, some parents have bemoaned the potential impacts the change could have. More transitions would be disruptive, some have said, and the larger schools would disenfranchise parents, effectively doing away with neighborhood-centric relationships that everyone agrees have benefited the current structure.
The superintendent, and others in his administration, said the switch is absolutely necessary to avoid busing students across town to help balance class sizes, as is the current practice. The board has committed to capping classrooms at 20 students. Predictions of declining enrollment have proven true, and could ultimately force the district to shutter one of its buildings if some other measure isn’t put in place, according to Cavallo.
School board member Joan White said she recognizes enrollment-and other issues that stem from that-as the driver of this proposal. However, that students on the south side would be housed differently “might be” a deal breaker, she said.
“I think there’s a real issue of class balancing that needs to be fixed,” White said. “I feel the taxpayer is not being well served by the school board running a class of 10 students. We need to maximize those classes at 20.
“The issue I have with it, to be honest, is I want second grade to be at Betsy Ross on the south side.”
White said she has discussed her concerns with Cavallo and is expecting to hear more on the subject Thursday.
Blaylock, too, pointed to the goal of finding a more efficient means of maintaining class sizes as the primary reason for the proposal. However, the discussion of Cavallo’s plan has covered everything from busing, to student safety, after-school programs, parental hardships, academics, money and social constructs. Keeping his focus on the district’s goals, said Blaylock, has “somewhat simplified” his thinking.
“In the big scheme of things, for a school board to pursue opportunities to maintain small learning communities … we can’t apologize, or shouldn’t apologize, for whatever that initiative is,” Blaylock said.
Board member Frank Mott, however, is less confident in his decision. In an e-mail to the Review with only one week before the vote, Mott said the weight of Thursday’s meeting is hanging on him.
“In all honesty, I am still wrestling with the pros and cons and seeing how it all aligns with the district’s mission, vision and goals the board has developed,” Mott said in his response. “I find myself thinking about this night and day, which is interfering with my job and my sleep. At this point, I would rather not say anything else, except that, for me, it is coming down to just a very few critical issues that will make or break the proposal in my mind.”
Chuck Hoehne is among a handful of parents who have brought alternate solutions to the board in the hopes of defeating the superintendent’s plan. In the days leading up to the vote, Hoehne said he is trying to “get the word out” and encourage more community members to attend the meeting. More importantly, he said, is convincing the public not to lose interest in the issue regardless of the outcome.
“It’s not over just based on this vote that’s coming up,” Hoehne said. “There are still plenty of discussions that need to take place.”
At the board’s November meeting, Cavallo said his plan isn’t necessarily exclusive and the district could incorporate components of the alternatives suggested. Hoehne won the support of others opposed to using developmental centers with his request that the board consider multi-age classrooms. Developmental centers, he said, won’t solve all the problems and the multi-age format could help.
“I hope that whatever happens, it’s not totally pulled off the table,” Hoehne said.
Regardless of the board’s vote, Cavallo said updates to the curriculum will take place. He has argued that those changes would be easier to implement under his proposal, and may save the district money. Board members recently voted to purchase new learning materials for the music department, but administrators have held off on actually placing the order. That equipment could be shared by students in the same grade level under the developmental centers, said Cavallo, and cut the purchase price in half.
This is Cavallo’s second year at the helm in Forest Park, and the superintendent said it’s likely he has forever alienated some parents. The easiest alternative, he said, would be to do nothing and jump ship in three or four years when the enrollment forces a crisis situation.
“It’s not going to get any better and I had to make some decisions,” Cavallo said. “Timing is everything.”
The element of the calendar is not lost on board members either. Four board members face re-election in April. Mary Win Connor, Mary Turek, Lois Bugajsky and White must file their nominating petitions next month if they wish to appear on the ballot. Bugajsky did not return a phone call seeking comment, but each of the others said their vote won’t be influenced by their own political plans.
“My thoughts are it could be the end of any career I could ever have in politics,” Connor said with a half-hearted laugh. “Obviously it’s something that has been very emotional on both sides.”
Cavallo, too, said he asked the board members very frankly whether they would even consider his proposal given the upcoming election. Each, he said, told him that if the conversation is worth having, they ought to have it.
“I’m not trying to make a decision based on keeping myself as a school board member,” Turek said.
The District 91 board is scheduled to meet at 7 p.m. at the administrative building, 424 Desplaines Ave. Comments from the public on this, or any school-related issue, will be heard at the start of the meeting.