Forest Park School District 91’s board of education unanimously approved the scaled-back version of its school closure and restructuring plans, deciding Thursday night to close Grant-White Intermediate School, 147 Circle Ave. and to leave Betsy Ross Primary School, 1315 Marengo Ave., open for at least another school year.
At the start of the 2022-2023 school year, Grant-White students will shift to Field-Stevenson Elementary School, 925 Beloit Ave., and Grant-White teachers will be transferred to Field-Stevenson. The board decided not to send all fifth graders to Forest Park Middle School, also at 925 Beloit Ave. Plans to move all preschool and kindergarten students to Garfield Elementary School, 543 Hannah Ave. are on hold as well. The district plans to use the Grant-White building for events, and board members expressed hope that enrollment numbers will increase to the point where it will become necessary to reopen the facility as a school again.
During the May 12 board meeting, board president Kyra Tyler attributed adoption of this hybrid plan to feedback the board received during community hearings, which saw teachers and parents raise concerns about whether the plan meets the needs of special education students. The district framed the changes as a delay to give the district more time to address those concerns. The district hopes to implement the remaining changes at the start of the 2023-2024 school year.
The original proposal presented during April 30, May 3 and May 5 community meetings called for closing Grant-White because of low enrollment and Betsy Ross because of overcrowding. Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Alvarez argued that with the enrollment numbers declining in most schools, it made sense to have one preschool, one elementary school and one junior high. It would also improve teacher collaborations and keep students together as they make their way through the school system.
Alvarez told the Review that the board always planned to have a vote in either May or June. While the May agenda mentioned a vote on school closure, it didn’t elaborate on what the board would be voting on.
Throughout the public hearings, parents, teachers and residents urged the district to hold off making any decision until at least the 2023-2024 school year and to get input from all the stakeholders. Residents living near Betsy Ross argued that the school was an important community asset.
Meeghan Binder, president of the Forest Park Education Association faculty and staff union, said her members had concerns about scheduling for individual grade levels, the building capacities under the fire code and the logistics of busing. Teachers and therapists raised concerns about whether the schools would have spaces to meet the needs of special education students.
During the May 12 meeting, Alvarez said she thought taking more time with the postponed elements of the proposal would be the best course of action, and that she was confident that Field-Stevenson would be able to pull off the transition.
Board members all made similar arguments, saying it made no sense to keep Grant-White open given the enrollment trends and the fact that they would need to hire a principal and secretary if the school was kept open. Several said it is the students and the teachers, not a building, which makes a school community, and that they preferred to frame the process not as a school closing, but as a transition.
“It is critical for everyone to understand that our kids are listening to adults,’ said board vice-president Shannon Wood. “How we talk about it [will affect] how it makes our children feel.”
Board member Monique Cotton-Yancy said she supported taking more time to look at the needs of special education students, saying that the stakes were too important.
“I know we can move kids into Field,” she said. “I don’t see the harm in waiting a year to [close] Betsy-Ross, to make sure we’re checking every single box, and even double-checking.”
Board member Katherine Valleau, a former teacher, said that she was excited to see what will come out of Field-Stevenson.
“The education that our children are going to get, it’s going to be wonderful,” she said. “The cohesion along great levels, the collaboration among teachers, it’s going to pan out beautifully.”
Later during the same meeting, the board unanimously approved making school buses free and available to all families.
“We want to offer that opportunity for everyone,” Tyler said. “This will be optional, opt-in process.”