Betsy Ross, the smallest school building in Elementary School District 91, will finally bid farewell to the portable trailer behind the building at 1315 Marengo Ave. The D91 school board viewed architectural plans for the $3.7 million addition and makeover of the building at their Nov. 14 meeting.

New features include a second-story (fenced) outdoor space, a new library where the gym currently sits and two expanded kindergarten rooms. A “gross motor” room (gym) will be added to the the school’s north end, which will double as a lunchroom with

a small prep-kitchen. An elevator will be installed along with two multipurpose rooms that may be used for music and art.

“Betsy Ross is the only school in the district without a music or art room,” Superintendent Lou Cavallo reminded the board.

The project will also feature a renovated outdoor play space including slides and other playground equipment surrounded by low-maintenance natural landscaping and permeable pavers. The outdoor space doubles as an outdoor classroom with an outdoor blackboard. The school will be clapped with a multicolored neutral weather-resistant fiber cement siding that will unify the look of the new and old portions of the school.

The indoor space used by adults will also be reconfigured, with bigger office spaces, an adult bathroom and extra storage. A thin parking lot will run behind the school along the alley.

The board discussed the rationale for adding facility space to a school district that has seen enrollment drop by 20 percent, from 1,000 K-8 students to 814 in the last 10 years.

“It’s a hard sell to a community to do an addition on a building with declining enrollment,” Cavallo told the board in September 2012.

The arguments for a new building are two, the board said.

First, Betsy Ross, built in 1926, was never configured for modern school use. There were never dedicated spaces for school offices, storage, or art and music. Teachers have carried art and music supplies around on carts. The trailer behind the school was used for office space for special education, social workers, English as a Second Language instruction and small-group reading intervention. It was, by law, a temporary solution. The Illinois State Board of Education only allows trailers at schools for a few years before they must be phased out.

Updating Betsy Ross puts the school on-par with the other schools in the district.

“We knew the trailers were a temporary fix,” said board member Rafael Rosa. “We need to let the community know.”

One area where enrollment is increasing is in the tuition-free universal preschool at Garfield School which is bursting at the seams. The classes filled up quickly and there is a waiting list of 20 students. Cavallo hinted another section of preschool might eventually be opened at Betsy Ross after the improvements.

The second argument for a new building is that the district can afford it. D91 has paid off all debt and can fund the Betsy Ross improvements without floating a bond. The district’s four other schools underwent remodeling projects last year as part of one of the district’s six stated core values: “District 91 values clean, safe, nurturing environments and facilities that support learning.” By basically paying cash, the district can get discounts from contractors on construction.

Contractor bidding will begin in February 2014 followed by the beginning of construction in March, said Craig Siepka of Wight.

“We would have construction finished by August, which is a very aggressive timetable, but we’ve done it before,” he said.

The district will host a January presentation to show the new plans to parents, teachers and community members.

“It’s expensive and we have declining enrollment, and we need to have a conversation with the public about that,” Rosa said.

“Educationally, [the addition] is the right thing to do,” Rosa added. “We need to help people understand why this is happening.”

Jean Lotus

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...

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