During a regular meeting on Sept. 10, the Proviso Township District 209 Board of Education voted unanimously in favor of implementing the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme at Proviso East and West by the 2020-21 school year. Board member Amanda Grant was absent.
The board vote amped up pressure on district administrators to make sure that the proposal is implemented a year earlier than Supt. Jesse Rodriguez recommended — a scenario that is possible, but not without complications, he said.
The move would essentially replicate at East and West the academically rigorous curriculum of Proviso Math and Science Academy, the center of which is the IB program, which allows high school students the opportunity to earn college credits at universities all over the world. Other features of the PMSA curriculum that would be included in what would be miniature math and science academies at East and West are an eight-period day and a 25-credit-hour requirement for graduation.
D209 officials said the measure is meant to expand access to the most academically rigorous curriculum the district has to offer to more students who have the potential to excel in the curriculum.
"How do we have equity when we don't have such programming at Proviso East and Proviso West?" Rodriguez asked on Sept. 10.
In the past, Rodriguez has emphasized that the proposal to expand IB at East and West will happen alongside increasing enrollment at PMSA's Forest Park campus.
"There are basically two expansions," Rodriguez said in an interview last month. "Currently, there's an expansion happening at PMSA internally, where we're going from 742 students to over 900 next year."
Starting in the 2020-21 school year, if all goes according to the district's tentative plans, 75 incoming freshmen at East and 75 at West will enroll in the new academies and start taking courses to prepare them for the IB curriculum their junior year of high school. The district has already started the process of obtaining IB authorization, which takes at least two years.
Rodriguez said those incoming freshmen will be integrated into the larger student bodies at East and West — taking the same electives and going to lunch with their peers in other programs, among other realities. He added that the plan to introduce IB at the two schools will not negatively affect the other academies at East and West, such as the College and Career academies at both schools, and the Marzano Academy at East, which utilizes a curriculum designed to help students master material at their own pace. In addition, no AP and honors courses will be eliminated, he said.
Some students and teachers who spoke during public comment on Sept. 10, however, expressed concerns about the proposal, arguing that it will only intensify the perceived divide between the heralded PMSA and her sister schools.
"I'm disappointed in this move," said Carissa Gallespie, a teacher in D209. Gallespie said teachers and students have been "bombarded" with programs and initiatives with "no clear description provided to teachers and the community. With all these programs over the past few years, Proviso seems to have become a jack of all programs and masters of few to none," she said. "We introduce a lot of programs, yet how many and how often are they evaluated for overall effectiveness and efficiency? How often do we allow programs to really grow before replacing them with the next new thing? As educators, I can say we're overwhelmed, and if we're overwhelmed, I can only imagine how our students feel."
Alexis Gomez, a senior at Proviso East who lives in Melrose Park, said he was concerned that the new academies at East and West will benefit "a small group of students" and would work to segregate the students within all three academies from their peers who aren't in the academies.
"It is true that East and West are among the lower ranked schools academically, which is why the resources being allocated for this plan should instead be repurposed to [better] serve East and West," said Gomez, a member of Rodriguez's Student Advisory Board, adding that the money spent expanding PMSA's curriculum should go toward paying teachers and staff at East and West higher wages, among other things.
"We don't challenge these rankings by bringing PMSA students to their home schools," Gomez said. "We do so by raising the standards of East and West curriculum students. The 'purple palace,' as PMSA is sometimes informally called, wouldn't exist if it weren't for the red and blue blocks that built them."
Rodriguez, along with some board members, pushed back against claims that the proposal goes against their attempts to make the district more equitable.
"I understand the anxiety with change, but it amazes me that we claim to be educating children, but say things like 'segregation,' 'separation' and 'division,'" Rodriguez said. "I went to college and there were people on a PhD track and a medical track and I was not. Did I fight with them? Were they smarter than me? I've never seen a mass fight between PMSA students and East-West students."
Rodriguez said the idea to expand PMSA's offerings has been a topic of informal discussion for a few years and aligns with the desires of board members and district officials. He said district administrators and board members have been in communication about the proposal for months. He's also met with students, staff and community stakeholders to talk about the proposal, he said.
"There's a lot of support for this and there are also concerns and questions, and those are important to also take into consideration," Rodriguez said. "As a result of some of those concerns and questions, we have made changes to this action item."
The district, for instance, was considering whether or not to house the math and science academy at East in the high school's field house, Rodriguez said, adding that he ultimately ditched that scenario. He said housing math and science academy students at East in separate facilities would have meant much higher costs and would have substantially altered financial projections and construction timelines contained in the district's facilities master plan. Besides, he said, the board favored the co-utilization model of integrating math and science academy students with their peers.
"Pushback doesn't necessarily mean we will give up on the idea," Rodriguez said. "We are going to seek every opportunity to make it happen and if it doesn't make sense, I will have no problem coming back to the board and saying that."
With the unanimous board vote, the pressure is on Rodriguez and his administration to implement the proposal a year earlier than the 2021-22 launch date, with which he was more comfortable. Most board members, however, want the program up and running by next school year.
"There's certainly a sense of urgency from the board. In the last month, we've been in communication constantly about this idea," Rodriguez said, before adding that 2020-21 "is pushing it. It's possible, but it's a big push."
"That's a lot of work you're hoping can get done in a little bit of time," said board member Della Patterson. "It takes time. It takes a lot of time. I feel like we're rushing it."
Board member Theresa Kelly said she's confident in the expertise and skills of Bessie Karvelas, PMSA's principal and the district's chief innovation officer who will oversee the proposal's implementation.
Rodriguez said the earlier implementation will put greater strain on the district's budget, but there's nonetheless money to fund it without the district creating a structural deficit.
The superintendent said he'll have a clearer picture of the financial implications, among other logistical factors, of the earlier launch date by the time he presents the district's five-year financial plan to the Financial Oversight Panel on Oct. 15.
"If, by any chance, this is something we cannot do, I will bring an item back for reconsideration, but I can assure you that, financially, we're able to do it and you will be able to make an investment in Proviso Township high schools," Rodriguez said. "I just want to play it safe with you based on the respect I have for you and this district."