District 91 School Board President Kyra Tyler said she “wants to know” what families, teachers and residents think of a proposal floated by the board earlier this month to close at least one school building as early as the upcoming school year, a move she says would be made with the best interests of students at heart.
The board discussed the framework of its proposal at its April 14 meeting and referenced long-declining enrollment as the primary factor in closing one or even two of the district’s six school buildings. District 91 has an overall enrollment of just more than 700 students, a far cry from the 1,200 students who once roamed the buildings’ hallways.
Any action to close school buildings, however, will not happen without public input. There are three upcoming public hearings and an opportunity to cement details of the proposal, which is currently in the early stages. The hearings, which are formally to discuss the closures of Grant-White Intermediate School and/or Betsy Ross Primary School, are scheduled as follows:
Saturday, April 30, 10 to 11 a.m., Howard Mohr Community Center (7640 Jackson Blvd.)
Tuesday, May 3, 7 to 8 p.m., Grant-White Intermediate School (147 Circle Ave.)
Thursday, May 5, 6 to 7 p.m., Betsy Ross Primary School (1315 Marengo Ave.)
Tyler and the rest of the school board unanimously supported the proposal at the April 14 meeting. Tyler told the Review in an interview that she doesn’t see “many downsides” to the closure or closures, she also acknowledged that the idea of closing some buildings’ doors could be difficult to accept for some in the community.
“One hundred percent there was trepidation,” Tyler said of the decision. “It’s an incredibly emotional decision — I have a kid in the schools — and I didn’t want that to get lost in the conversation.”
Tyler said there are no immediate plans to demolish or sell any closed buildings, and that alternative uses could be floated if the buildings are no longer used as traditional school settings. She also echoed comments from fellow board member Monique Cotton-Yancy that the district is not in a “crisis” that necessitates closing buildings down but rather being proactive in tackling multi-pronged problems.
Enrollment at Grant-White has been plummeting and this school year only 74 total students take classes at the building. Meanwhile, Betsy Ross was described as overcrowded, with some learning taking place in building hallways because the existing layout does not accommodate the district’s needs.
Pulling students into other buildings, where space is available, would not only rectify the undercrowding and overcrowding issues at the two schools being considered for closure, it would also consolidate teaching efforts into a single building.
The proposal being currently discussed would keep the grade-level center model the district has operated under in recent years but create a single building where a grade is taught at each level. For example, all first graders would attend the same school building as opposed to the current setup that has two schools splitting first-grade students, creating what Tyler called “north side” and “south side” students.
“We believe that clustering grades together makes sense,” Tyler said. “We just don’t see the value anymore, necessarily, of it happening in two separate places for such a small pocket of kids. This is also what our community has been telling us and, quite frankly, showing us in enrollment.”
Board members stressed during the April 14 meeting that bringing cohorts (grade levels) together would not mean increasing class sizes, which are already small. They argued that bringing cohorts together would also benefit teachers, who could collaborate as a district-wide unit without having to leave their building and that, in turn, would benefit students.
“We don’t see our kids as numbers. This is all about community minded, unified schools,” Tyler said. “We have great teachers, but this is also about more consistent instruction and we believe that can be accomplished with more collaboration.”
Tyler also believes the new makeup of the district’s schools could happen quickly. It’s possible that if the board decides to move forward, one or both Grant-White and Betsy Ross could be closed before the start of the 2022-2023 school year, and the board was clear that the changes should be made no later than the 2023-2024 school year.
“Our community has been a little bit dormant around innovation and change in our educational system,” Tyler said. “[This is] just getting people used to the idea that we’re trying something different.”