Kimberly Wheeler agonized over sending her daughter, Kendra, to Proviso Math and Science Academy. Living in Westchester the last 10 years, Wheeler said she’s heard all about the township’s woeful high schools. But she trusted that the magnet school in Forest Park would be different.
In front of a standing-room only crowd at the school board’s May 18 meeting, Wheeler joined a chorus of students, parents and teachers in denouncing proposed budget cuts they say would cripple the district.
“Part of me says I should stay and fight, but there’s too much at stake,” Wheeler said after addressing the District 209 board. “I can’t risk her education.”
One by one, for nearly an hour, audience members approached the podium to tell administrators and board members that cutting music programs, foreign languages, the student newspaper and science clubs would render the academy unrecognizable. The school is slated to graduate its first class of seniors May 30, and has been billed by the district as a source of hope in what is otherwise a failing district. Students pleaded that if they are to have a shot at getting into college, they must have something other than their grade-point average to show the admissions office.
Administrators first presented the proposed cuts during a meeting in April as a way to end years of deficit spending. Scenarios in which 10 percent, 15 percent and 25 percent of expenses are eliminated will continue to be reviewed until the board makes its final decision in August. District 209 is on the state’s “financial watch” list and the unusual step of calling in a financial oversight panel was taken this year.
Two years ago, the district overspent its budget by more than $12 million, according to Nikita Johnson, assistant superintendent of accounts and finance. Proviso is expected to end the current year with a deficit of $1.5 million.
“If you take away the stuff that makes us unique, what does that make us,” Jeffery Brown, a graduating senior who worked on the academy’s student newspaper asked the board.
In the days leading up to the Monday evening board meeting, students at the math and science academy held rallies and invited their parents. At the start of the meeting, members of the band played in the parking lot and in the hallways of the school while classmates held signs touting the value of such programs. Dozens of students wore T-shirts that read “Maybe students aren’t the only ones who should be studying math.”
A member of the junior class outlined the importance of foreign language classes, particularly French and Chinese. A student council representative reminded administrators that academic clubs are not “playful diversions.” Justin Guyton, a senior, reported that 87 percent of the student body at Proviso Math and Science Academy is involved in one fine arts program or another.
Kate Miller, a freshman at the school from Forest Park, said the extracurricular programming is where many students learn to thrive.
“I’ve found my voice because of the theater program, and I’m using it to speak out,” Miller said.
Forest Park Commissioner Rory Hoskins wrote a letter urging the district to consider the impact a weakened school system has on the entire community. Rep. Karen Yarbrough (D-7th Dist.) said she was flooded with phone calls and e-mails from students, and so made the decision to attend her first board meeting in the district. Mona Johnson, president of the teachers’ union, said staffing cuts would only make it harder for learning to take place.
School board members did not respond directly to concerns raised Monday, but stressed that nothing is final. Board president Chris Welch repeated the mantra of four years ago when the academy was opened: “Failure is not an option.”
“We were committed to the Proviso Math and Science Academy then, and we are committed to the Proviso Math and Science Academy now,” Welch said.
Wheeler, meanwhile, said she isn’t sure whether she trusts the school board. She hasn’t decided yet if her daughter will return to Proviso for her sophomore year. She and her husband have discussed selling their home to find a better public school.
“We all feel very stressed about the situation because a lot is at stake,” Wheeler said.