Tuesday, April 8, 2014 || By Michael Romain
Wednesday, MAYWOOD–District 89 Board President Veronica Bonilla-Lopez, Board Vice President Regina Rivers, Superintendent Dr. Michael Robey and Irving Principal Adrian Harries were on hand last Wednesday, April 2, inside the gymnasium of Irving School to make one last major pitch to the public on the merits of the upcoming reorganization plan before the board brings the entire proposal to an official vote at its next meeting on April 10. The presentation was one among three that were held that day at different times–the others at Stevenson School and the District Office, both in Melrose Park.
Starting next academic year 2014-15, Stevenson and Irving will be turned into 6-8 grade middle schools; Emerson, Lincoln, Garfield, Jane Addams, Melrose Park and Roosevelt (pending board decision) will serve grades K-5; and Lexington and Washington “will serve some specialized purpose,” one of which will become a Dual Language Magnet School, according to a PowerPoint presentation that was recently posted on the District’s website.
All three meetings on the reorganization plan were strictly informational, with officials stipulating days in advance of the meetings that public questions or comments wouldn’t be allowed. Instead, inquiring parents or community members were instructed to submit written questions to the Superintendent’s office ahead of the meeting. There were also question forms at each meeting location that they could fill out and submit before the presentation began.
The formality, however, didn’t sit well with some in the audience, who had come more prepared to vent their frustration with the proposal than to sit through a presentation.
“To tell parents that this is not a Q and A, and just an informational session; it does us a disservice,” said Ms. Evans, who preferred to be identified by her last name only.
Another community member, a former district employee who preferred to remain anonymous, impugned the district’s decision to hold the meetings in three separate locations and at different times on the same day. He believed that the move was representative of the district’s overall handling of the reorganization process, which he condemned for its lack of transparency and top-down nature.
“The parents were informed through teachers–teachers told students and the students told the parents,” he said of the way in which news about the reorganization plan was disseminated.
“It makes it look sneaky. Maybe you do have the kids’ interests at heart, but its the way you do things,” he said. “Involve the community.”
Superintendent Robey, however, has noted that the discussions that preceded the district’s decision to implement the reorganization plan were open to the public, even though he admitted that the district did not proactively publicize the plan as officials were thinking it through.
“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,” the superintendent said in an interview conducted last month.
“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.”
Dr. Robey said that the district’s motivations to hold three meetings on the same day at different times and locations were logistical, not conspiratorial–a matter of informing as many people throughout the district as possible and as efficiently as possible.
The board is expected to take another vote on the plan at its next meeting on Thursday, April 10–something that it tried to do at its last meeting in March, but couldn’t because a gathering of frustrated parents and community members wouldn’t let them.
The informational sessions were attempts to confront many of the concerns and anxieties expressed at the March meeting, while their strict orderliness were designed to prevent the kind of disorder that arose at that meeting. The April 2, sessions are part and parcel of a much more aggressive public awareness campaign that, according to the PowerPoint presentation, will also include addressing community concerns in an informational newsletter that will be sent home with students and posted on the district’s website.
Dr. Robey began the presentation by mentioning a range of procedural weaknesses the district currently confronts, not least of which is the tremendous disparity in class sizes.
“We have a system of inequity that is built into our school district,” Dr. Robey said.
“Students don’t come to us in neat little packages, they come to us wherever they live right now, that’s the concept of a neighborhood school,” he said, before mentioning a point that, while perhaps one of the strongest complicating factors of the reorganization plan, has been largely obscured by much of the public controversy surrounding it.
“Younger students do benefit from being in neighborhood schools, closer to home, but older students benefit from consolidation,” the superintendent said.
Indeed, many of the potential benefits of the plan and much of the troubleshooting with respect to its implementation were focused on the middle schools.
Irving Principle Adrian Harries said that part of what makes the middle school format so attractive is the opportunity it provides for a more efficient concentration of resources and attention.
“In a middle school, we’re actually able to cater to middle school kids,” he said. “One of the great ways [teachers] get better is to bounce ideas off of their peers,” said Harries, but presently, many teachers don’t have this opportunity. Due to the present composition of the district, teachers of certain grade levels are often cutoff from their peers. The new plan would put more teachers who teach similar grade levels in the same buildings with each other.
Harries said the new arrangement would liberate the district to offer more grade-specific programs, such as robotics and filmography offerings, in a way that wasn’t possible before.
Addressing parental concerns about how student safety may be jeopardized by pooling together many students from different schools in just two buildings, Dr. Robey said that the district is looking into various preventative measures. These would include restorative justice and peer mediation programs designed to instruct students in various conflict mediation techniques, teach them how to effectively communicate through conflict and provide them with time for dialogue with their peers.
Maywood Police Chief Valdimir Talley, who was also in attendance, said that he has had initial conversations with Dr. Robey about student safety and expects to have more in the future.
“We need to have more in-depth conversations regarding safety in the community. We want to make sure that the distances students travel are safe passage,” he said.
It’s entirely reasonable to assume that many of the benefits of concentrating middle school students and teachers in two buildings will also accrue to PreK-5 and K-5 students. A more efficient use of resources at the middle school level may also imply a more efficient use of resources at the lower grade levels, but the district did not flesh out in their presentation precisely whether or not they anticipate this to be the case.
This was especially true with respect to travel issues.
Ms. Evans said that the reorganization plan “is similar to what they did in Chicago [with mass school closings]. “What about Emerson students going all the way over to Roosevelt and Roosevelt coming all the way over here to Emerson? What will kids do without bus service? Some parents don’t have transportation. The magnet school sounds phenomenal, but what about the kids who will have to be transplanted again?”
During his presentation, Dr. Robey noted that the board is considering the potential of some limited bus stops, but that the state doesn’t mandate that school districts provide transportation for students unless the distances exceed 1.5 miles, or a state-approved hazard is discovered along routes to schools.
On the surface, it would seem that the district’s transition from the neighborhood school model to the new model would burden younger children the most in the area of travel. But this appearance of disproportionate sacrifice was not really addressed, which may have been why Ms. Evans seemed to have left the gymnasium with the same frustrations and assumptions she had upon entering it.
For instance, a rather non-threatening hazard for a first sixth-grader may present a real danger for a first-grader. Similarly, a mile may be an altogether different distance to a second-grader than it is to a sixth-grader–particularly when it involves crossing train tracks.
Just two slides after the one highlighting the state’s procedures on mandating transportation, another slide stated, “The railroad tracks present a significant safety hazard for our students. The Board does not want any student to be placed in harm’s way.”
This would seem to complicate the implementation of the Dual Language Magnet School, which will be located at either Lexington or Washington and would mean a trip across the railroad tracks for very young students and their parents or family members who live in areas north of Main Street. Whether or not the district would dedicate a bus route to provide passage for Magnet School students whose families have no recourse to private transportation was not discussed in detail.
Also under discussion were the ways in which K-5 attendance lines would be constituted as a result of reconfiguration. The district offered two options each for both the Irving and Stevenson boundaries. Dr. Robey noted that the board favored the second options for both Irving and Stevenson. For Irving, Option B follows current attendance lines with the least amount of disruption and much smaller class sizes and far more physical classrooms available for future growth.
Option A for the Stevenson attendance area, “didn’t have a whole lot of favor with the board,” Dr. Robey said. “This one did,” he said, with respect to Option B. He said that with the second option, “Everyone whose currently at Lincoln stays at Lincoln; same with Jane Addams.”
Despite the detailed information, community members present at the meeting seemed frustrated about not having the opportunity to provide input, or establish a consensus, as to which option they preferred. Instead, attendees were presented with Dr. Robey’s email address and input forms in case they had any questions or comments.
Some parents worried that the district is rushing to enact the reorganization plan. And although many of them seem to think that the plan is good for the community, many also believe that the district may be excluding the community from the implementation process.
“There were no surveys. The board didn’t talk to us parents. We’re for this, but they’ve got to do it right,” said Dave Johnson, whose children attend Jane Addams. Johnson was anchoring a group of about five or six other people who had stayed behind to vent.
Mr. Johnson echoed a comparison first presented by Ms. Evans.
“Kids are going to have problems with other kids coming into their school, their territory. Their attitude is, ‘This is my domain, my school–I was here first, you’re coming to my house.’ It’s the same as in Chicago,” he said.
“I think this is a positive step for members of District 89,” said Vice President Rivers. “And by members, I mean the community–all of us working together to do what’s best for our students…”
But as she spoke, the tail end of her comments were drowned out by a cacophony of chairs sliding on the hardwood floor and a stream of side conversations. The community was headed towards the exits. VFP
(clockwise, l. to r.: Deborah Johnson, grandparent of D89 student; Chief Talley sits with attendees before the meeting begins; parents, students and community members wait for the informational to start; Chief Talley, Officer Pirsia Allen (center) and Board Vice President Regina Rivers converse; a group of women waiting for the meeting to begin; Dave Johnson speaks with a group of parents after the meeting).