The consensus at the fifth and final facilities master plan community engagement session — held May 15 at Proviso Math and Science Academy in Forest Park — was loud, clear and expressed most stridently by Jose Espin, a PMSA parent.
"I'm really concerned about this idea of moving PMSA into East or West," said Espin, the father of a current PMSA student and of a graduate of the magnet school. "I've been trying to wrap my head around how this is even an idea. … We will be literally killing PMSA and what it stands for. … Everyone has told me, 'If they move PMSA to either East or West, we'll pull our kids out of PMSA [and] take them to private school or move to another town.'"
Espin said he has "a 12-year-old studying hard to make it into PMSA," then told the district, "There is no more debate to have. Drop this today. This is it."
Although Proviso Township High Schools District 209 school board President Ned Wagner said the meeting was designed to give community members a platform to share specific facility-related ideas with board members, most of the roughly two dozen people who offered public comment at the meeting echoed, in one way or another, Espin's sentiment.
"This [meeting] is not necessarily designed to talk about whether we're closing or combining schools," Wagner said, before pointing out that those in attendance nonetheless "have the right to talk about what you feel is important to talk about."
At the fourth community engagement session, held April 24 at PMSA, architects from Perkins + Will — the firm hired last year to facilitate the master facilities planning process — presented three concepts for each school.
Two of the nine concepts — which were also the most unpopular among those in attendance at the meeting — called for Proviso East and Proviso West to absorb PMSA, which would be relocated from its current campus in Forest Park to either of the two other schools.
The architects, district administration officials and board members have repeatedly stressed that the facilities master plan process is still in the preliminary phases and that the board has not yet formally weighed in on the matter one way or another. They've also stressed that there has been no talk of actually closing PMSA as a selective enrollment institution.
But those who spoke against the idea of relocating PMSA's physical campus said closing the school and relocating the campus is a distinction without a difference.
"When PMSA families ask if the school will be closing, the standard response from the district is, 'No one is talking about closing the school.' Yet, the opposite is true," said Eddie Tam, a PMSA parent.
"Moving PMSA to another host campus is the same as closing the school," Tam added. "Splitting PMSA so that it can be relocated on two separate campuses is the same as closing the school. Either of these options will destroy the culture, learning environment and mission of the school."
During the nearly three-hour meeting, some PMSA students and faculty members lamented what they felt was the hostility between PMSA and its two facility counterparts during the master plan's early stages. They said the hostility would be exacerbated if relocating PMSA were actually carried out.
"We believe [relocating PMSA to East or West] may cause more dismay and segregation," said Maddy Norton, a PMSA sophomore and student leader. "How would you monitor who is going into the PMSA wing?"
Norton presented the results of a recent student-conducted survey administered at the three schools that showed that between 70 and 80 percent of PMSA students who responded believe their school is friendly, said that they are involved in extracurricular activities and believe themselves and/or their peers to be hardworking.
Among respondents at East and West, Norton said, the percentages were significantly lower. At East and West, respectively, 46 percent and 42 percent of students felt their school was friendly; 54 percent and 46 percent said they are involved in extracurricular activities; and 46 percent and 27 percent believe themselves and/or their peers to be hardworking, Norton said.
Fernando Ortiz, another PMSA student, said a student-conducted survey administered to 100 respondents at PMSA revealed that 75 percent of freshmen who were surveyed "reported that they'd want to leave the district if the merger happens."
Samantha Chavez, a sophomore at PMSA who described herself as a "quirky, nerdy individual," said she feels a sense of confidence at PMSA that she wouldn't feel while attending the magnet school at East or West.
Neal Rutstein, a PMSA math teacher, said the "animosity that has now grown up against this issue, where one school is being pitted against another, will be exacerbated" if PMSA is relocated.
Rutstein, along with some PMSA students and community members, said their descriptions of PMSA as a more welcoming educational environment shouldn't be construed as a putdown directed to East or West; rather, they argued, the aspects at PMSA that have made it one of the best schools in the county and state, according to multiple rankings, should be duplicated at its two sister schools.
Some PMSA faculty members said that relocating the magnet school, which first opened nearly 15 years ago, would risk upsetting a dynamic that, to this point, has been rather successful.
"I've gotten distressed from all of this talk about moving PMSA," said Sylvia Foti, a PMSA English teacher.
"You cannot take what has been working so well against so many odds and propose such a radical change," she said. "I was a journalist for 29 years before becoming a teacher and I believe that if you move the school, it will be a public relations disaster. Please don't move the school."
Peter Scheidler, a PMSA math teacher, said he once worked at a small high school located in a former elementary school building in Chicago. That high school, he said, was moved into another school and "within two years that school was gone."
"To me, hearing a school within a school concept floated is a little bit like a bad dream. I've watched students go through this terror of finding out that their school was on the chopping block," Scheidler said.
"Thanks for having these meetings," he added. We had these meetings and people said the same line, 'No one is talking about closing schools.' That wasn't true in Chicago. It was already a done deal. The meetings were a formality. This isn't just a formality. Thank you."
Scheidler, who said he's worked at a Proviso Township feeder district, said the prospect of getting accepted into PMSA gave his eighth-grade students something to aspire to.
But some people weren't satisfied with the narrative being focused solely on PMSA.
"Why should I choose between paying for a private institution and crossing my fingers, hoping she's accepted into PMSA?" said Pia Davis, a Hillside resident who noted her 11-year-old granddaughter is preparing for high school. "That should not be an alternative. That is unacceptable."
Wagner said the district will be conducting "a lot more analysis," including demographic and real estate analysis, during the summer before a final facilities master plan recommendation is possibly brought to the board sometime in November.