Thursday, March 20, 2014 || By Michael Romain
Last week, I sat down with District 89 superintendent Dr. Michael Robey inside of his cavernous Walton Street office in Melrose Park, the relatively placid eye of a rather intense storm that’s been steadily gathering within the last few months over the Board of Education’s proposed plans to drastically reconfigure the District’s current K-8 structure.
Starting next academic year 2014-15, Stevenson and Irving will be turned into 6-8 grade middle schools; Emerson and Lincoln will serve grades K-5; Garfield, Jane Addams and Melrose Park will serve grades PreK-5; and Lexington, Roosevelt and Washington “will serve some specialized purpose,” according to a PowerPoint presentation that was recently posted on the District’s website. “One of the three [specialized schools] will become the Dual Language Magnet School; PreK-1, extending a grade level each year.”
While Dr. Robey says that the Board consulted intensively with students, teachers, parents and the general public before going forward with the proposed reconfiguration, the scene at the District’s latest board meeting on March 13th betrayed a much more ambiguous reality. Some parents in attendance were so incensed that the Board couldn’t take the proposal to a final vote. Dr. Robey says that several rogue campaigns of misinformation, setbacks during the process of educating the community and genuine concerns about the impact of the change are primarily responsible for what frustration there exists with the proposal.
And yet, the most alarming aspect of such fevered, high-pitched debate about the proposed reconfiguration plan may be that we’re even having it at all. Dr. Robey, who was hired in 2012, says that the plan to reconfigure District 89 schools has been under serious consideration for two decades now. In fact, a slow look around neighboring and nearby school districts may even suggest that the change was bound to occur–the only wonder being why it didn’t happen earlier.
All of the District’s neighbors–from Bellwood (88) and South Berwyn (100) to Forest Park (91) and Oak Park (97)–are configured along the same lines, with elementary age students (typically grades PreK/K through 5) separated from middle school age students (typically grades 6 through 8). Whether or not this kind of configuration is better for the communities of Maywood, Melrose Park and Broadview than District 89’s historical K-8 structure is debatable (although the evidence seems to suggest that it is). What’s indisputable is that District 89 has been an outlier for a long, long time in this respect.
This conversation with Dr. Robey is the first in a series of articles that will explore the District’s reconfiguration proposals in much more depth.
Can you kind of sketch out a contextual outline of how this proposal came into form. I think people really want to understand the process by which the Board came to its decision to reconfigure. I think it’s safe to say that many people feel that all of this seems so sudden and rushed.
The board commissioned a study through our strategic plan. A consulting group met with teachers, non-certified staff members, administrators, parents and the public, and asked them what are things about the District you like, what are things we’re doing well and what change would you like that would enhance the future education of our children. They studied several aspects, such as our achievement data, our finances, etc, and they came up with a series of recommendations. The reconfiguration plan was one of them.
We’ve actually been thinking about doing something for our middle school children for a long time. The board had been having conversations about this issue prior to my arrival. Twenty years ago, they were prepared to make a decision on middle schools, but for some reason they didn’t follow through with that. Within the last few years, however, the board got a little more serious, formed the education committee and the committee came back quickly with the need to implement middle schools and consolidate resources to be more efficient. This was all done in open sessions. Anyone could have attended these meetings.
After we had conversations with union representatives and they came on board, it was suggested that we move quickly on this, because we didn’t want to go through another year of classroom size inequity and lost resources. Last year, things kicked it into high gear. We began having those committee meetings every two weeks and the discussion got a lot more intense.
The thing that struck me the most was the feedback that we got from our kids. We selected student representatives from the 6th, 7th and 8th grades. These were all trustworthy kids with strong records of academic achievement and extracurricular involvement. The most telling comment came when they as a group told us, ‘Why can’t we have what other school districts have–real science class, interscholastic sports, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) programs, real art classes. It’s not fair. It’s not fair that we don’t have the same opportunities that kids in other school districts have.’ The board said, ‘these kids are right, it’s not fair.’ That’s when it resonated. So, the kids were the biggest deciding factor. And the teachers agreed. They said we need something like this like yesterday. So those factors led us to the point we’re at now.
I think, with respect to those who are really angry, the real issue is misinformation. There were like three big letters going around the community filled with misinformation and misstatements. So I can completely understand why people feel the way they do. But, as it relates the Board’s decision process, every decision has been made in open session. Our education committees have met in open session . The Board’s done its due diligence, but we do need to get more information out to people.
So we have committed ourselves to doing informational meetings on April 2nd to try to take all the questions we have received from people and we’ll also allow them to submit questions to us as at the meetings, as well. The biggest undecided pieces we have are about structuring the remaining buildings.
Tell us about the empirical support for your decision. What concrete justification does the district have for switching to the new configuration?
Most of the districts in our area have middle schools and virtually all of the larger districts in our area–Forest Park, Westcheseter, Bellwood, Mannheim, everyone west of us–have middle schools.
The first big reason we’d go with middle schools is because all of our schools in Maywood and Broadview are operating under capacity. Irving, for example, has the capacity to hold over 1000 students, but currently we have about 350. We have two wings of Irving closed down, because they’re not utilized. Every single school in Maywood and Broadview is at least half-empty. Garfield has capacity for around 900 students, bu we have about 350.
But everyone talks about the overcrowding in District 89 schools. How does what you just said square with that common complaint?
The issue isn’t necessarily overcrowding, it’s the general inequity in the class sizes. So, for example, last year at Irving we had 13 students in one class and 38 in another. When you consolidate the students, you begin to even those numbers out. The class sizes will actually shrink to about a 25:1 ratio (25 students to a teacher). Right now, we’re a bit higher than that, but we have classrooms that are 13 and classrooms that are 38. It’s really the luck of the draw, which grade you’re at and which school you’re at that determines whether you’ll be in an underpopulated or an overpopulated classroom.
This is one of the unfortunate consequences of the current configuration. If you’re a neighborhood school, you have to take whoever lives within the boundaries of that school. By reconfiguring schools based on grade level and not on geography, we’re going to be able to equalize that classroom inequity and consolidate our resources. From a teaching perspective, it’s very challenging when you’re the only fourth grade teacher in a school and you have no peers. This is one of the reasons the teacher’s union is behind the plan. They actually said that they wish we’d have done this years ago. Of course, you’re going to have individual teachers who may disagree with it, but on the whole, we have the teachers’ support.
The other thing is that by looking at middle schools, we’re looking to take an interim step to consolidating the quality of education our children are getting. We’ll be able to offer courses for advanced learners, interscholastic sports. When we have two middle schools, we’ll be joining an athletic conference and competing with schools in other districts. We’ll be able to add more sports such as track. We’ll also look into adding art and music teachers who specialize in those content areas. Librarians are under consideration. See, when you have twenty eighth graders in a school and only five are interested in something, it’s not feasible to do those kinds of things.
Many parents have said that they felt shutout of the process. Why weren’t parents notified sooner and why wasn’t there a more vigorous effort to make parents and the general public more aware of the proposed changes?
When we were in the preliminary planning stages, we didn’t put out anything like a newsletter, we didn’t publicize too much, because we didn’t want to raise unnecessary angst among the kids and their parents, although that’s happened anyway. But at the time, we didn’t have firm decisions made. The only things that were decided were the magnet school and the two middle schools. In fact, up until the March 13th meeting, the Board hadn’t decided firmly where the two middle schools would be.
There was really only no school in Maywood other than Irving that could reasonably be turned into a middle school. Melrose Park had the square footage, but it has fewer classrooms than Stevenson, so that put Stevenson into the mix. Going forward, although this isn’t really a decision the Board has to vote on, they still want to go on public record in April and take a vote. We’re moving forward with middle and magnet schools, but we want to hear what more people have to say before the final configuration is made.
I’ve been meeting with any organization that will have me to talk about the changes–from the PTA’s to chambers of commerce. I plan to meet with all of the mayors of the impacted communities. A few organizations have sent representatives.
When you meet with people individually, or in smaller groups, do the ones who don’t agree with the reconfiguration ever leave with a change of mind?
Usually they do. I’ve probably met with over a thousand people and there were only three who said they didn’t like the idea of moving to middle schools. The three of them all told me they understand why we’re doing it. They understand the benefits of consolidating resources,, but they didn’t like the idea for them as a family, personally. I totally understand that. Their perspective is valid. There are many people, especially some at the March 13th meeting, who don’t like the idea primarily because it’s different from the way things were. Generations of their families have gone to the same school and they’re concerned about what happens when you mix students from different schools, such as Lexington and Irving, for example. But, you know, we have to think of ourselves as one community and one district.
Can you talk a bit about the dual language magnet school. What is it and why is there so much confusion and frustration surrounding the idea?
A lot of people think that it’s a school for bilingual children only. That’s not true. It’s a magnet school open to every child in the District. There will be minor criteria for entering the school, but its not a selective enrollment. Anyone who can apply should apply. Our intention is to have children walk out of that school able to read, speak and write in two different languages. Currently we don’t have a foreign language component in our District. We want to bring a program that benefits all the children enrolled in it. So half of the students will be native English speakers and half will be native Spanish speakers and the goal is to make them bilingual in both languages. We’ll start with two PreK classes, two kindergarten classes and two first grade classes and each successive year a grade will be added. So, for instance, in 2015-16, we’ll add 2nd grade. The next year, 3rd grade and so on until we get up to 5th grade.
The biggest misconception with this school is the belief that we’re taking a group of bilingual students, creating a building just for them and our sole purpose will be to help them learn English. That’s not the intent at all. The intent is to bring in two different groups of speakers. A lot of people think this is a step toward segregation, but this is really a step toward integration. Research shows that there’s a direct correlation between students in dual language programs and their academic achievement. There’s a dual language report on our website that demonstrates that students who have participated in this program all the way through 5th grade are outperforming their peers in just about every measurable category. That’s a tremendous benefit.
If you look at the way the world operates, America is one of the few countries in the world where people only speak one language. People in other countries know more than one language. This program is going to make our children more competitive in the future in a worldwide market. And as it expands, we intend to expand it to multiple grade levels.
Right now, District 89 students have no foreign language courses?
No. We have a traditional bilingual program for students who struggle with English , but it’s not the most effective method. We’ll still have that traditional program for those students, but we’ll also have the magnet school.
You vaguely mentioned certain criteria for entry into the school. What other specific criteria will be necessary for students seeking entry into the school?
You just have to be a native Spanish speaker and/or a native English speaker. Ideally, we’d like the population to be about half and half. The rest is based on a lottery system. We’re going to have a cutoff date for registration, from that date, we’ll do our first round of selections. We only ask that families give us a six year commitment. That means that they’ll pledge to keep their kids in the program from the moment they enroll in PreK all the way through the fifth grade, because the program is really the most effective that way. There will be a waiting list, so for instance, if a student didn’t get picked in the lottery for PreK, they’ll still have a chance to enroll in first grade. We can accept children for beginning enrollment up to first grade.
But again, the research demonstrating the benefit of dual language programs is pretty overwhelming. The State of Illinois has actually endorsed the dual language model as the preferred model for bilingual education for students.
What will all this cost? What will be the specific expenses involved? And how will you all pay for it? I know the presentation mentioned bonds, but will the Board also consider looking at state and federal grants among other alternative means of funding?
We’ll probably end up borrowing about $2 to $3 million. A lot of the cost will be tied up in renovations, such as the addition for Stevenson, which will get six more classrooms added in order to accommodate for its new middle school use. We’ll also do some retrofitting and remodeling at Irving, so that it can become a middle school. Actually, Irving is in pretty good shape as a building. Years ago, when they built an addition onto Irving, they took some things into account, like building a middle school-sized gym. In all, this may cost $3 to $3.5 million, most of which will be funded through bonds. The other portion we’ll be able to pay from our general fund.
We also currently have three state grants which are providing for some much needed renovations of our buildings. For instance, all the windows at Garfield will be replaced this year through a 50/50 matching grant. Some of that grant money will help pay for upgrades associated with the reconfiguration. The other pieces of the renovations we’re looking to do in-house. For instance, some of the remodeling will be like moving fixtures for the plumbing–that kind of thing will be done internally
We’re not reducing any of our teaching staff. There will still be larger numbers of children in schools that are nearby or within Melrose Park. For instance, Lincoln in Maywood is full to capacity, which is exactly the opposite of Irving. In some cases, we’ll actually be adding staff. We don’t currently have teachers who can teach music from a broader perspective or art teachers who specialize in that content area. Physical education and health will be expanded. We want full periods of health and/or physical education everyday.
There was a recent article from the Illinois State Board of Education talking about schools’ plummeting financial ratings. Our district was on financial watch for 10 to 15 years. We were only two schools in the entire State that moved from financial watch to recognition due to our improved financial status. This board and staff have made sacrifices and we’ve been smarter about spending our money. None of this would’ve been possible without the hard work that everyone put in over all those years.
I know you’ve been following what happened with the Maywood Public Library. The bottom line with respect to their having to close was that they raised several million dollars in bonds to fund new construction, borrowed money from a bank to pay the bonds down and after the credit crisis, the bank tightened the repayment conditions of that loan, forcing the library to pay more to service its debt and less on general operating expenses. When you combine that with the depressed property tax revenue, you’ve got some real trouble. How will the Board ensure that it doesn’t fall into a similar kind of debt trap in the future with respect to the bonds?
We just did a study at the beginning of the year of all our neighboring districts and districts similar to us and we discovered that we have the second-lowest tax rate of any of those districts. We only get 15-17 percent of our revenue from our local taxes. It isn’t much and that I don’t picture changing until the financial position of most of our communities changes. So we’re planning for that to be the case for years on out. The bulk of our money comes from state and federal funding. For the most part, about 98 percent of our families classify as low-income, so that puts us in a good position for receiving funding from the state and federal levels. We’re looking very closely at the state’s condition. But when you look at the amount of the bonds we’ll be purchasing–somewhere between $2 and $3 million–we’ve got about a $55 million budget. That’s about 4 percent of our total revenue. So, for the taxpayers, it won’t mean a big change.
Fortunately, we’re in good financial shape. It’s tenuous, because its based upon what happens at the state level and there’s a real threat that the state will have to make massive cuts if the new tax rates don’t go through or pension reform doesn’t happen. Who knows, but over time, we have to keep doing what we’ve done over the last couple of years, which is building our cash reserves back up. We currently have enough in our reserves to cover about 20 percent of our operating budget, which is necessary, because when our bills come due at the end of the year, we don’t always receive state funds on time.
What do you say to teachers, parents and students who are more worried about the disruption the changes will bring than they are relieved about the benefits that will potentially come from it?
We’re realistic enough to realize that this change will take some time, so the biggest objective for our teachers and staff is team building. Things are going to be different. It’s going to take time and we have to honor that change is hard for everyone, but if we believe that its a change for the better, then we have to move forward. The benefits of changing are far greater than the costs of staying with the same structure. VFP
On Wednesday, April 2nd, the District 89 Board of Education will host three informational sessions on the proposed reconfiguration plans. One will be at 5:30pm at Irving School (805 S. 17th Avenue, Maywood); another will be at 6:15pm at the District Office (906 Walton Street, Melrose Park); and the third will be at 6:30pm at Stevenson School (1630 N. 20th Avenue, Melrose Park).