First posted 12/12/2008 10:04 a.m.

Unanimously, school board members in District 91 last week voted to approve an administrative proposal that will radically alter how elementary classrooms are configured, beginning with the 2009-10 school year. The changes should also negate a long-standing practice of shuffling kids between the different schools so that smaller class sizes can be maintained.

The introduction of so-called developmental centers, or grade-level centers, will group students in an entirely different way than what has traditionally been done in the four K-5 elementary schools. Instead, students in the primary grade levels on the north side of town will attend Garfield Elementary until they reach the third grade, when they’ll move to Grant-White.

The same applies south of the Eisenhower. Children in grades K-2 will attend Betsy Ross Elementary, while students in grades 3-5 will attend Field-Stevenson.

The middle school, located adjacent to Field-Stevenson, will not be affected by the change.

The decision was made Dec. 11 following months of sometimes discordant debate. With the proposal, Superintendent Lou Cavallo sought an end to so-called class balancing while managing a declining enrollment.

Cavallo introduced the proposal in September as a way to guarantee families know where their child will receive instruction. As it is, a cap of 20 students per classroom requires administrators to move kids between the four neighborhood schools. Often, the decision of which child will be relocated to which school is not known until classes begin.

This practice, according to board members and administrators, is absolutely flawed.

“It is utterly unfair for kids and families not to know what school their kids are going to go to until the first day of school,” board member Frank Mott said.

Mott gave an emotionally charged explanation of his vote, and recounted the fight his family waged some 10 years ago to keep their daughter from being relocated from Garfield Elementary as a result of class balancing. Like many families, Mott said he and his wife purchased a home near the school with the expectation that their daughter would attend what is arguably the highest-achieving school in District 91.

After winning their child a spot at Garfield, Mott said he never had second thoughts about possibly ousting someone else’s child.

“Was there another kid that got booted because we fought,” Mott asked during last week’s meeting. “I don’t know. And I didn’t care, because I wanted my kid to go to Garfield. Shame on me. Shame on me.”

Mott also pointed the finger at the school district and the community for allowing this practice to persist for so many years.

Throughout the discussion on whether to adopt the superintendent’s proposal, parents within the Garfield community were among the most outspoken critics, and drew suggestions of racism and elitism as a result. Members of the close-knit school community who opposed the changes said Cavallo’s plan would hobble any chances for continued success.

The school’s principal, however, Jamie Stauder, has said from the outset that she supports the plan. Following the school board’s vote, Stauder said it was a “good decision” and she was looking forward to getting started.

Until only recently, no other school in the district could boast the type of perennial success on standardized exams as Garfield. Parents in the neighborhood have earned the respect of district officials for leading some of the most educationally involved households.

The attendance area is also far more affluent than its neighbor to the north, Grant-White Elementary, with which students will be combined under the new structure. Educators and parents in the community have dubbed the neighborhood surrounding the popular school “Garfield Heights.”

Grant-White, meanwhile, has struggled to finally begin an upward trend with respect to high-stakes exams. Neighborhood residents are generally more transient, have fewer economic resources and 70 percent of the student body is black. Roughly 32 percent of Garfield students are black.

Maintaining-or improving-parental involvement under the new structure was a key argument for those on both sides. At last week’s meeting, district officials said they expect interested parents will remain so regardless of the vote.

“It has been said that parental involvement will decline,” Cavallo said of his proposal. “I think just the opposite. Parents choose to be involved or not, regardless of what we do.”

The school board meeting saw a larger than normal turnout with some 25 to 30 people in the audience. Two community members addressed the board at the outset of the meeting and asked that the restructuring be rejected.

Two logistical changes to the plan were introduced during the meeting.

Previously, administrators discussed using two buses on each side of town to transport students between the grade-level centers. Doing so would require staggering the starting times between the schools, a tactic that drew criticism from parents. As an alternative, administrators said each building could begin and end the day at the same time if four one-way bus routes are implemented. Financially, there would be no difference than if two round-trip routes were used.

The original proposal was also tweaked so that second-grade students could attend Betsy Ross. However, if the district sees an increase in the demand for its junior kindergarten program, junior kindergarten students living on the south side of town would attend that program at Field-Stevenson, not Betsy Ross.

Betsy Ross has only nine classrooms, according to Cavallo, and will be occupied by students in kindergarten, first-grade and second-grade. There simply isn’t enough room at Betsy Ross to accommodate another class, he said.

On the north side of town, junior kindergarten will be housed at Garfield School.

Currently, all of the district’s junior kindergarten students are bused to a single location.

In the coming weeks, educators will begin more intensive planning for the transition, including a variety of activities to introduce students and parents to their new peers.