In the midst of the first full week of the school year, administrators in District 91 said that, overall, new busing routines and grade-level configurations have been implemented smoothly. Buses are running on time, students seem to be acclimating well and teachers are getting down to the business of teaching.
“You wouldn’t know it was a first transitional year,” Garfield Elementary Principal Jamie Stauder said.
The start of each academic year brings at least a few surprises even when there isn’t a massive list of changes to be navigated, but Forest Park schools are in fact working under a brand new structure. Previously, each of the four elementary buildings housed students in grades K-5. This year, however, students are grouped by their respective grade level. Stauder’s building, for example, is home to children in grades K-2. She also has the district’s youngest students in the junior kindergarten program.
Students living on the north side of town in the third, fourth and fifth grades attend Grant-White Elementary.
“After two days, they already knew what they were doing,” fifth-grade teacher Pat Malarski said of her Grant-White students.
When school board members were considering whether to implement the new attendance structure, parents who objected to the changes argued that students benefit from interacting with a mix of age groups. Older kids would adopt leadership roles and younger students could model their behavior after more mature students, they said.
Proponents of the new structure, however, said that students would flourish in a setting that is devoted entirely to their respective needs.
At Garfield and Grant-White, educators said students have not asked about the children who would otherwise be sharing the hallways. Sharon Urbaniec is a math specialist splitting her time between the two northside elementary schools.
“Even over there, the kids aren’t asking ‘where are the big kids,’ ” Urbaniec said of her Garfield students.
Superintendent Lou Cavallo pushed for the new school structure as a means to improve academic performance. The changes would also allow the district to better manage its resources and maintain smaller class sizes, he said.
During the opening days of the new school year, Cavallo said he has visited each of the buildings and many of the classrooms. Perhaps the most striking difference this year, said Cavallo, is that the atmosphere in each building feels more age appropriate. At Field Stevenson Elementary, for example, students in grades 3-5 were introduced to a new behavioral program that was implemented last year at the middle school. That introduction occurred during a school-wide assembly, and the discussion would have been beyond the grasp of younger students, he said.
“It is a very different feel,” Cavallo said. “It’s just so different.”