The school board talks with attendees aturday, April 30, 2022, during a community meeting to discuss the future of the Forest Park schools at Howard Mohr Community Center in Forest Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

While most people who attended the April 30 Forest Park School District 91 hearing said they were open to the idea of closing Grant-White Intermediate and Betsy Ross Primary schools, they wanted the board of education to take its time and not make the decision for at least another year.

The district has proposed closing Grant-White, 147 Circle Ave., because of low enrollment and Betsy Ross, 1315 Marengo Ave., because of overcrowding. With other schools facing declining enrollment, the district is proposing moving all preschool and kindergarten students to Garfield Elementary School, 543 Hannah Ave., moving all first through fourth grade students to Field-Stevenson Elementary School, 925 Beloit Ave., and having fifth through eighth grade students at the Forest Park Middle School, also at 925 Beloit Ave. The district would hold on to the shuttered school buildings as a contingency should the long-term decline in enrollment begin to turn, and it would consider putting a specialized school inside the Grant-White building.

The April 30 hearing, which was held at Howard Mohr Community Center, 7640 Jackson Blvd., was the first of the three planned public hearings. The nearly standing room only crowd of teachers and parents said they wanted the board of education to consider every factor carefully and listen to all the stakeholders. 

Several argued that the conversation ignored what they felt was a major reason behind the declining enrollment – parents wanting to avoid having to send their kids to Proviso East High School.  Unless the quality of Proviso Township District 209 schools improves, they argued, the district will be back to talking about closing schools in another few years.

In her April 20 hearing presentation, District 91 Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Alvarez said current enrollment was below projections made before the pandemic.  In the 2021-2022 school year, the district has 595 students, less than the 622 students that were projected. 

“Our largest school is pre-school,” Alvarez said. “Our preschool students tend to leave us the most.”

Grant-White currently has 71 students, while Betsy Ross has 141, Garfield has 197 and Field-Stevenson has 121. But there is the question of capacity – Betsy Ross has 11 classrooms, while Grant-White has 21,  Garfield has 17 and Field-Stevenson has 21. Alvarez said if the situation isn’t changed, Betsy Ross could end up with 20 students per classroom, while the other elementary classes will keep getting smaller.

The superintendent argued there are several advantages to the proposal. It would make it easier for teachers who teach the same grades to work together in a single building, allow all students within the same grade levels to build relationships with each other, and ease the transition between elementary and middle schools. The district would be able to rent out the two emptied schools and potentially set up a “specialty school” such as a gifted school or a STEM school at Grant-White, which may or may not charge tuition. And it would also save money on staffing. If vacancies emerge as staff retires, they won’t have to worry about filling positions. 

Kristin Pekoll, a District 91 parent and president of the Betsy Ross’ Parent Teacher Organization – though she said wasn’t speaking in the latter capacity – said she generally supports the process.

“I don’t know what the right decision is for our district, but I do have trust and faith in the integrity of our board, and our teachers and [the community] to do right by students,” she said.

Asia Britt said her children thrived in District 91 schools, and she was worried about how disruptive school closures would be for them. If the schools do get closed, she wanted to see at least a year-long transition period.

“Just want the big people [in charge] to know – think of the children when you do anything,” she said.

Drew DePriest said he generally supports the proposal, but he still saw value in taking things slowly and studying the issue carefully.

“Schools aren’t failing,” he said. “We’re not out of money. We’re doing fine. I think of it as a vaccine instead of medicine. It’s the way to help get you more efficient.”

Stephanie Crabtree, who said she was worried about her daughter not being able to walk to school if the proposal passes, was among several speakers who said the plan was missing a bigger picture. 

“We have a great school district and great community, but once you get to the high school level, you run for the hills,” she said.

Parent and Citizen Advisory Committee member Jennifer Barbahen agreed that District 209’s reputation was an issue but argued that Forest Parkers need to think of it differently. 

“Proviso East – it is our public high school,” she said. “Instead of flight, Forest Park really needs to come together and fight for our kids.”

District 91 is holding two additional public hearings – one on Tuesday, May 3, 7 to 8 p.m. at Grant-White and one on Thursday, May 5, 6 to 7 p.m. at Betsy Ross. The board is also expected to discuss the matter during its May 12 meeting.