Forest Park School District 91 is considering making changes to its preschool program, potentially reducing the number of classroom aides and changing the way kids get music and arts education – but nothing has been firmly decided yet.

In recent weeks, the Review received tips suggesting the district was planning to reduce the number of classroom assistants from two to one, as well as cutting the music, art and gym teacher. While the changes don’t appear to be quite as drastic, district officials and teachers confirmed parts of it. District officials said they might need to reduce the number of classroom aides depending on how many vacancies they have by the start of the 2022-2023 school year, and that they wanted to make sure special education students have the aides they need. As for art and music education, the changes would potentially affect the half-hour period that is currently filled with either art education, music education, gym time and library time. Since the teachers involved also teach older students, there would be no staff reductions.

During the June 2 board of education meeting, superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Alvarez addressed the concerns directly.  She insisted the district isn’t planning to change the program and that, so far, they’ve only seen one vacancy occur. Alvarez didn’t rule out potential changes to the art and music programming, but she didn’t elaborate. 

District 91’s preschool program is located inside the same building as the Garfield Primary Elementary School, 543 Hannah Ave. The classrooms are located on the lower level, but students use the library and some classrooms and spaces that elementary school students also use. There is a special classroom set up for special education students who need support beyond what can be offered in a regular classroom.

Children attend preschool for a half-day session. The proposed restructuring deals with a half hour period that preschoolers get once a week. What happens in this period varies each quarter, with each class getting each subject in a different order. Each preschooler getting a quarter of art education, a quarter of music education, a quarter of gym time and a quarter of library time, where students do reading-based learning activities and get an opportunity to read books. 

Meeghan Binder, president of the Forest Park Education Association faculty and staff union, told the Review that throughout May administrators told the staff they were considering reducing the number of classroom aides, “including a reduction in paraprofessional support,” as well as “a change in schedule offerings for the preschool classes.” While nothing has been firmly decided, she said she met with Alvarez and “it was stated that the implementation of both of these proposed changes are still under consideration by our administration at this time.” Binder said that the administration was planning to meet with teachers to discuss the issue further.

“Our teachers pride themselves on having worked over the past 10 years to create a preschool program for our families that works to meet the needs of the whole child and we will be meeting with Dr. Alvarez this week to discuss their concerns over these proposed changes,” she said.

Edward Brophy, the district’s assistant superintendent of operations, told the Review, said the reduction of classroom aides was something they were considering if too many aides decide to leave the district over the summer. He said they wouldn’t know for sure if they would even need to make the reductions until early August. 

“What’s challenging is that, sometimes, resignations will occur throughout the summer, so it’s not always known what vacancies we’re going to have to fill, because it’s a very fluid process,” Brophy said. 

He said the district is trying to have as much flexibility as possible on the matter. However, he said their “absolute priority” was making sure special education students have the aides they need, even if it means moving assistants from other classrooms. 

When asked whether the district planned to fill the vacancies, Brophy said hiring classroom assistants, especially the ones who work with special needs students, was challenging even before the pandemic.

“It’s a widely shared challenge among the school districts in Illinois and elsewhere to recruit and retain [instructional assistants],” Brophy said.

As for the 30-minute programs, Brophy said the district never considered firing teachers, since those teachers teach K-2 students as well. What they were considering was no longer having the dedicated periods, so that preschoolers would have more time to socialize – which, he said, became more important than ever due to how much time kids were isolated from their peers during the pandemic. Brophy emphasized they would still be getting art and music education from their regular teachers. 

“It’s just rethinking how we want to use the time, because it’s a short window,” he said.

One teacher the Review spoke to on May 31 said she was concerned about what that would look like in practice, and she was waiting for the meetings Binder mentioned to find out more.

Brophy didn’t respond to follow-up questions asking when the district would decide what to do with 30-minute periods. When asked whether finances had any role in either decision, he said that he would get back to the Review on that but didn’t respond by deadline.

In her comments during the June 2 board meeting, Alvarez tried to soothe the concerns about changes.

“We are very proud of our preschool program and have no intention of changing what has been developed,” she said. “The times and what is offered to our 3–4-year-old scholars is not changing. We continue to provide high-quality and accessible programs for our early learners.”

However, she also said that “art, music and PE will be provided by our preschool teachers and library will be provided by our library media specialist.”

“We will also be reviewing schedules for our primary specialists — PE, art and music, to see if there is available time for any additional enrichment of 30 minutes, once a week, each quarter for our preschoolers,” she said.