For Jane Mortenson, a kindergarten teacher at Betsy Ross, every new school year is an adventure. A new classroom of students brings a new batch of names to memorize, idiosyncrasies to navigate and parents to please.
But this year, her 20th year, will be “particularly new,” said Mortenson.
On Aug. 26, students in Forest Park’s K-8 classrooms will step into a reorganized district that groups kids within a more strictly defined peer group, separating them from students who may be significantly more – or less – mature. Gone is the tradition of attending a single elementary school before being launched into a much larger setting at the middle school.
The school board’s unanimous vote in December to scrap the traditional K-5 buildings through which generations of Forest Park families have graduated was met with limited but boisterous objections. Some parents protested that learning would suffer at the hands of a faulty classroom ideology. Administrators said there were financial and social considerations also at play.
On a recent weekday morning, as she helped register new kindergarten students, Mortenson said she remembers having a more immediate concern: how in the world could such a sweeping change be implemented so quickly?
“That was a big concern,” Mortenson said.
But with almost eight months of planning – and a summer chocked with extra training – Mortenson said she’s ready for the next adventure.
“I think it’s going to make for a pretty smooth transition,” she said.
The restructuring means that students who live north of the Eisenhower Expressway will attend Garfield until they reach the third grade. From there, it’s on to Grant-White until the end of their fifth-grade year.
On the south side of town it is much the same. Younger students will walk the halls of Betsy Ross until they reach third grade, then it’s over to Field-Stevenson.
All junior kindergarten students will be taught at Garfield. The changes do not impact the middle school.
Part of the impetus behind Superintendent Lou Cavallo proposing to restructure the schools was to better manage class sizes. The school board has stuck rigidly to capping classes at 20 students and preliminary enrollment numbers show that each classroom in each building has room to grow before crowding becomes a concern.
In years past, students were routinely transferred to other buildings in order to balance class sizes. In many cases this left parents feeling cheated, particularly in the Garfield neighborhood where standardized test scores are consistently high.
A new busing system will also make its inaugural run on Aug. 26, a prospect that drew fire from some parents worried that their children might be harmed while waiting for buses to arrive.
Chuck Hoehne, a parent of two young boys, argued against the restructuring plan. Once it had been adopted, Hoehne said it was important that he and others who shared his view be as supportive as they could.
“I am encouraged by all of the hard work that has been put into making the transition as seamless as possible,” Hoehne said in an e-mail to the Review. “Every school year has a few hiccups, and we should not expect this year to be any different. While accountability is important, we need to keep in mind that tremendous effort is being put into making this year a success.”
From the day-to-day standpoint of a parent, Hoehne said he isn’t quite sure how the new classroom structure might manifest itself. He still intends to walk his boys to school in the morning where, “at some point, one son will get on a bus and the other will go into the building.”
As the first day of classes nears, teachers have made sporadic appearances at their respective schools getting classrooms ready. Jen Westol, an almost 20-year veteran of the district, has a new job this year as a Title I teacher. Because of the way students are now grouped, District 91 is receiving additional federal funding on the south side to provide specialized instruction. Westol will be based out of Field-Stevenson, but will also teach at Betsy Ross. Her background is in reading, and Westol said she expects to focus primarily on helping students in that subject.
“I’m very excited about it,” Westol said.
At Garfield, Alice Reeves also has a new assignment. She’ll be teaching second-graders after having worked with fourth-grade students the previous year. As she eyed the unorganized contents of her classroom, Reeves said she’s happy to have two other second-grade teachers in the building. In fact, she has worked with them both before.
“I’m not overly concerned or overwhelmed,” Reeves said of the changes. “I think our principals have done a great job with moving us forward.”