Igor Studenkov/Reporter Community input: Residents gather at Betsy Ross School to hear and respond to D91’s plans for closing Betsy Ross and Grant-White.

While no one who spoke at the May 5 Forest Park School District 91 public hearing about the proposed closure of Grant-White Intermediate and Betsy Ross Primary schools outright said they didn’t want the schools closed, they made their feelings clear. 

The hearing, which was held at Betsy Ross, 1315 Marengo Ave., was the last of the three community hearings on the proposal. The district is considering closing that school because of overcrowding and closing Grant-White, 147 Circle Ave., because of low enrollment. It is proposing putting all preschool and kindergarten students at Garfield Elementary School, 543 Hannah Ave., all first through fourth grade students at Field-Stevenson Elementary School, 925 Beloit Ave., and adding fifth grade to the Forest Park Middle School, also at 925 Beloit Ave. 

Supt. Elizabeth Alvarez explains district plans. Igor Studenkov/Reporter

As with the first community meeting, which was held April 30 at Howard Mohr Community Center, 7640 Jackson Blvd., community members urged the school board to take its time and consider viewpoints of all stakeholders. But at this meeting, several speakers also argued that Betsy Ross plays an important role in the surrounding neighborhood and closing the school will harm the immediate community. Several voiced concerns about the impact on English Language Learners and special education students, urging the district to take those students’ needs into account.

As with the last two meetings, Supt. Dr. Elizabeth Alvarez 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. 

Meeghan Binder, president of the Forest Park Education Association faculty and staff union, said that, while they supported some aspects of the restructuring, such as plans for Garfield, they “caution[ed] against making decisions based on numbers alone” and that the schools consider issues such as scheduling for individual grade levels, the building capacities under the fire code and the logistics of busing. 

Teachers previously expressed concerns about special education students being taught in common areas. Alvarez emphasized that special education teachers would get their own spaces, and compared the common areas to a quad in a college, where teachers could find “private nooks”

That didn’t mollify Betsy Ross teacher Aimee Edwards.

“For [students] to feel safe and secure enough to stretch and grow, they need the dignity of private, dedicated spaces,” she said.” Financial [savings] and teacher collaboration are important, but not at the expense of the essential program’s that support our most academically challenged students.”

Noreen McNulty, a therapist who works at all district schools, said that, while she believed some restructuring was needed, she shared her colleague’s concerns. 

“Neuro-diverse students [with] autism, ADHD, sensory processing disorders — some thrive, but some students become overwhelmed and overstimulated by [sensory input] in the classrooms and need space to decompress,” she said. 

Bob Dorneker, who said he lives across the street from Betsy Ross, said he wanted to see the financial projections for just how much money the plan would save.

“I don’t want to see a vacant school, neither do our neighbors,” he added.

Gigi Hudson, who also lives near Betsy Ross and whose son went to that school as a child, said she worried that closing it would hurt the surrounding community.

“This neighborhood is something special, as all neighborhoods are in Forest Park,” she said. “There are many times we’ve thought of moving. What we’ve always come back to is this community, and this street, anchored by this amazing school.”

Reyna Baker said that the small classes at Grant-White have been good for her daughter, comparing it favorably to her own experience learning in “always overcrowded” classrooms in Chicago public schools where “learning was a problem.” 

Leslie McCray said her grandson has been struggling to cope with his mother’s death, Attending Grant-White brought him out of his shell, she said, but she was worried that having to change schools would undo the progress he’s made. 

“Now, this is another change for another kid, who has found a school he loved,” McCray said, though she added that her family is “looking to move out of state, and stay there, but if we stay here, I want him to stay at Grant-White.”

Alvarez responded that, given that her grandson would eventually have to go middle school, some change was inevitable. She pushed back on the idea that the plans were announced suddenly, noting that enrollment numbers have been dropping long before she become the district’s superintendent. And Alvarez argued that small classes would hurt kids’ development.

“It’s not just about space, it’s about human interactions, and if you have a room of just 5-8 children, they need human interactions,” she said. 

Board president Kyra Tyler said that, as someone whose mother was a retired nurse who used to teach at a Chicago public school that got closed, she understood how emotionally fraught closing a school is, but she argued that it was important to take action over the next few years, “when we’re not in a desperate situation.”

“Our greatest hope is that people will come to the district and stay here, so we can repopulate what we have,” she said.