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updated: 11/9/2010 11:54 AM

Prospect Hts. District 23 debates switch to grade centers

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  • Dwight D. Eisenhower School is separated from the other schools by several blocks.

      Dwight D. Eisenhower School is separated from the other schools by several blocks.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Anne Sullivan and Betsy Ross elementary schools are connected by a hallway, but are run as individual schools.

      Anne Sullivan and Betsy Ross elementary schools are connected by a hallway, but are run as individual schools.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Anne Sullivan and Betsy Ross schools are connected by a hallway, and some parents wonder if making it one big school would save significant administrative costs.

      Anne Sullivan and Betsy Ross schools are connected by a hallway, and some parents wonder if making it one big school would save significant administrative costs.
    Mark Black | Staff Photographer

 
 

Growing up in Glenview, Amy Stockbridge went to four different schools before she got to high school.

Glenview Elementary District 34 had reconfigured its neighborhood elementary schools into grade level centers, an increasingly popular option for suburban school districts trying to cut costs and maximize efficiency.

With grade centers, all students in the same grade attend the same school, instead of attending school based on geography.

Stockbridge, who lives in Prospect Heights, doesn't want her own children to repeat her experience. She objects to Prospect Heights Elementary District 23's proposal for grade level centers.

"I have three little kids who are growing up and will be attending these schools," she said. "I didn't feel any sense of attachment until I was in high school. You have to learn a new dynamic of schools every few years."

Stockbridge is one of several parents leading an effort against the proposed reconfiguration. They developed a list of objections and submitted it to the district, and she blogs about the proposal at d23community.blogspot.com.

Reconfiguring the district's three elementary schools has been discussed for several years in District 23, but it gained traction during last year's "Cut a Million" initiative, a districtwide effort of administrators, teachers, parents and community members to cut costs.

The district projects its deficit will be between $500,000 and $800,000 at the end of this fiscal year. Late property tax receipt payments from the county aren't helping, said Superintendent Greg Guarrine.

Switching to grade level centers could save between $200,000 and $500,000 a year, he said.

Many of the parents who've expressed opposition are from Eisenhower Elementary, which is the district's only true "neighborhood" school. It is down the road from the three other schools, located on one campus at Schoenbeck and Willow roads.

Among the parents' chief complaints are that grade centers destroy the sense of community in each school, and that parent involvement will drop if parents have several children at different schools.

The parent-teacher organizations could be hurt the most, Stockbridge says, since parents will have kids at multiple schools. That will make fundraising difficult, she said, adding that efforts to combine PTOs so far have failed.

Mark Kaiser of Prospect Heights walks his three children to and from Eisenhower every day. They're comfortable at the same school, but beyond sibling relationships, it allows for older students to mentor their younger counterparts, Kaiser said.

"These kids understand what it means to be part of neighborhood. It's about a community," Kaiser said.

Change isn't easy for a typical student, but it's especially hard for children with special needs, said Kathy Miller of Prospect Heights, who has a kindergartner with autism.

She said her son is finally getting to know the speech and occupational therapists and social workers at his school. Changing schools every few years could be difficult, she said.

"I worry about how my child and other children with special needs like him will adjust," Miller said.

Academic effects

Studies that measure how a child's performance is affected by a switch to grade level centers say the results are mixed, according to a report by the Ecra Group the district commissioned in May.

Generally, the conclusion is that switching the school configuration by itself doesn't improve test scores.

The transition can hurt scores, the report adds, although it doesn't have to, since what matters is how effective educational programming is.

Guarrine admits the proposal for grade level centers came from a financial, and not necessarily educational, impetus. But he says he wouldn't have recommended a shift to the new system "unless it was both educationally and financially feasible."

Some parents say they'd be willing to pay fees for band or intramurals, or to have registration fees increased in lieu of grade centers.

Guarrine contends that raising fees wouldn't fill the budget gap, and wonders how much parents would actually be willing to pay.

"I don't think every parent would be willing to pay fees," Kaiser acknowledged. "But I personally would rather pay for that than to have my kids moved around."

District 23 schools were ranked among the area's best by Chicago Magazine last month, and some parents are concerned that financial considerations are leading the discussion, while educational ones take a back seat.

But Guarrine said the district has to be able to afford its quality programs.

Some wonder why the district is pushing grade level centers at the same time it considers trying to raise property taxes on the April ballot.

Stockbridge said she'd be willing to support the district's referendum if it drops its grade center plan.

"Why raise my taxes, then bounce my children around at the same time?" she said.

Guarrine, however, said both are needed. A tax increase would be a long-term solution to the district's financial problems, he said.

"Even with the possibility of a reconfiguration of the schools, we are still not saving enough money to be solvent," he said.

Stockbridge said parents aren't trying to be a thorn in the side of district officials they want to propose solutions.

Others have suggested that administrative costs, which encompass $1 million of the district's $12 million budget, could be reduced.

Two of the district's elementary schools, Betsy Ross and Sullivan, are connected by a breezeway, but if they're combined as one larger school, one administrator could be eliminated, some have suggested.

"It's a bit irresponsible to impose (a new system) on 930 schoolchildren before you take a real hard look at your own house," said parent Kelly Hutchinson.

Guarrine countered that District 23's administrative costs are among the leanest in the area, and said a single principal in a building of more than 600 students would have an "inordinate amount of responsibilities."

Guarrine plans to present the school board with more information on grade level centers at its meeting on Wednesday, Nov. 10, and again in December. A town-hall meeting is being planned for mid-December, though no date has been set, said board President Martha Olsen.

Olsen said board members are still undecided on reconfiguration none are staunchly for or against it.

The board hopes to make a decision in January, and if approved, the new configuration would take effect next school year.

Whether grade level centers are adopted or not, Stockbridge said she knows everyone in District 23 is going to be affected by the district's financial condition.

"At some point we're all going to have to sacrifice something. We just don't know what it will be," Stockbridge said.

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