Huddled closely together, a handful of young students listen to their teacher’s narrowly focused instruction. The students have been pulled from their regular classrooms to work on specific skills in the hopes they don’t fall further behind.
Then come the distractions: Doors open and close. A friend walks by and can’t resist a quick hello.
In the confines of a classroom, such distractions are kept to a minimum. But these students aren’t in class. They’re in the hallway. Betsy Ross Elementary, which houses 168 students in kindergarten through second grade, is so short on space that kids are playing catch up in the hallways. Prior to the start of the school year, administrators in District 91 knew they didn’t have rooms where reading specialists, Title I instructors or special education teachers could work with their students. Now months into the school year and after a hodgepodge of scheduling changes and other failed solutions, kids are still trying to learn while sitting in the hallway.
On Thursday, however, school board members approved a request from administrators to lease a trailer. The mobile unit will likely remain at Betsy Ross through the end of the next school year.
“We have no spot for them,” Principal Bill Milnamow said. “That’s what we’re trying to alleviate and get them out of the hallways where they’re interrupted.”
In each of the district’s elementary schools, state law requires that students who speak English as a second language or qualify for special education and Title I instruction receive specialized attention. District 91 also pulls kids from their regular classrooms as part of its reading-intensive SLANT curriculum, which works best in smaller groups.
Betsy Ross, 1315 Marengo, is the smallest building in the district with approximately 22,500 square feet of space. Garfield Elementary, the next closest in size, has an additional 7,000 square feet to work with.
Milnamow’s building also has the fewest number of classrooms with nine, and is the only school in the district that lacks small office space where such specialized instruction would typically occur.
“At 168 students enrolled, Betsy Ross has the third highest enrollment among the four grade level centers,” Assistant Superintendent Ed Brophy said in a memo to the board.
Sean Blaylock, vice president of the school board, cast the lone vote against leasing a trailer for Betsy Ross. Blaylock said he agreed that students need to be moved from the hallways, and that the smaller groups are necessary to learning.
“I think the situation we have definitely needs to be addressed,” Blaylock said. “It’s just more of a difference of opinion on how to address it.”
School officials, including Blaylock, emphasized that Betsy Ross – and the district as a whole – is not overcrowded. Classrooms in every building are carefully managed to about 20 students each, and projections are that total enrollment will dip in the coming years. The problem is not in accommodating the general student population, but delivering specialized services, according to the district.
Constructing a permanent addition at Betsy Ross, said Blaylock, is the type of long-term solution that was lacking from the administration’s request. Blaylock said he does not want to see the trailer parked outside the school three years from now.
Leasing the trailer will cost the district an estimated $585 each month. Utilities, such as heating and water, are expected to cost another $500 a month. On top of those expenses is a one-time installation fee of about $12,100, according to Brophy.
Potentially, these costs could be covered with a grant obtained through the federal American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. District 91 has been approved for $146,000, said Brophy, but in capturing those funds the schools submitted a detailed budget on how the money would be used. To divert the money to the trailer requires an approval from federal regulators.