Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Which way did they go?

Something probably needs to be said about those who fled. At first blush, clearly they must have been racists. No child of theirs was going to go to school with those people. "Screw it, we're outta here." may account for a percentage of the total, but what options did they have? Anecdotally, a number of white students "transferred" to Proviso West, others to private schools. The area had many to choose from. For others who were on the fence whether to stay in the area or go, this was their signal. Was it the violence or the response from the school that was the deciding factor?

If an incident of this magnitude happened today there would have been busloads of counselors, endless meetings and discussions on the actions. Instead there were armed troops and a unilateral "deal with it. sit down and shut up" from the supposed responsible party. Zero tolerance had a whole `nother connotation. This hard line, "we're in charge" approach, in hindsight, might not have been optimal?

It would be hard to guess what the thinking may have been that was charting the district's course, save for the fact that just four years later the district found itself in federal court. It seems that some district residents found it unacceptable to be running two high schools. One 98% black and the other 98% white. Seperate, but equal? The federal court said "no, you cannot do that anymore. Fix it."

The district's elected school board chaffed at being told what to do. There was no shortage of suggestions. The local League of Women Voters suggested that one of the schools be used for freshman and sophomores and the other campus would serve juniors and seniors. A group of Proviso parents came up with the proposal of using one campus for Vocational Tech and the other as College Prep. Frustrations ran high. Leadership was needed. Busing?!?! In Proviso Township? How about open enrollment? Students could choose either campus?

After two years of pretending to listen to the various ideas, the district went to the federal judge and told him that they were moving the attendance boundaries. By including the racially transitioning town of Bellwood into Proviso West's attendance district, "White Flight would take care of the numbers". .. Excuse me? Say What?!?!? The only thing sadder than that was that the federal judge signed off on this scheme!

Well, what else could they do? This at least bought time for Proviso West so that the current upperclassmen at West could graduate before West too became a minority majority school. Proviso East was a lost cause. Proviso West could join it. The elected school board would still decide policy and more importantly, control the jobs and contracts of the district.

Without fanfare, ceremony or actual consideration of the alternative proposals, the school board surrendered, sold out, gave up. Oh yeah, and they blamed the public, the media, the courts, sunspots, gravity and the heartbreak of psoriasis.

Thirty years later. The territory of Dist 209 is still 60% white. Private schools and, until the recent collapse, Realtors have thrived. What was lost to them in appreciated values was made up for in consistent turnover. Churn also kept the elementary schools well stocked. Belying the notion that the situation is purely racial, the feeder schools resemble the United Nations. Only two of the eight feeder districts have lopsided enrollments. What all of them share is an exodus of students in their upper grades. Over time, that threshold has been steadily dropping as well.

There is still no platform for discussion of the issues plaguing the schools. It's "news" gets lost in the large metropolitan newspapers. Three or more local weeklies with different ownership provide "community" news. None of which have the staff or editorial spine to give more than press release and sports coverage to the district on a weekly basis. Basically, the district operates in its own realm, with impugnity. When it has conducted outreach, it controls the agenda and runs the meetings. There is no other platform with the influence or resources to unify the communities.

It has been an endless string of 5-year plans for improvement and a political football to be kicked around. Federal, State, Regional and County level pols say this is a local issue. Mayors and other elected officials in the communities see the issue as out of their hands. It is up to the board of education in District 209 to come up with the answers.

Among the communities the high school is perceived as toxic. Each of the 10 communities has discussed how much better it would be if they could get out of District 209. All of them have held meetings to discuss the situation. People plead with their elementary districts to step in and help.
Whenever disgruntlement, dissatisfaction and anger within a community builds up to a certain point, the district steps up and tamps it back down. Explaining the futility of trying to break away. That is usually enough to send folks home to make other plans. "Honey, call the movers."
"Where did we put that brochure from St. Joe's?" "Do you think your sister would take Mary for four years?"

Five years ago, without voter approval, the district sold $40 million in bonds to acquire and retrofit an office building to open a third school. It then went through several curiculum proposals before deciding on a Math and Science Academy Magnet School. 8th graders would test into the school. An entrance committee would make the selections. The school opened to a freshman only class of 126 in 2005 who will be seniors next year. In 2010 the first comparable data will finally arrive which the district intends to blend with the scores from the two other schools based on the attendees "home school".

The bonds that were sold reportedly covered the first year's operating costs. A referendum would be quickly needed to increase operations funding. So far the voters have not had their say, so the operations monies have come out of the district's current funds. This has caused healthy deficits and creative shuffling of various fund categories. In short, the district's finances are a mess.

Another new superintendent arrived last week. The fifth (or sixth?) in the past 10 years. The School Board has changed majorities at least 3 times during that same time period. Their attorneys several times as well. The deck chairs are dutifully rearranged, the tax monies keep flowing in and the churn keeps on churning. The only times I've heard the "children" mentioned is during election cycles and when the schools' dismal test scores are published.

Next up... What about NCLB?

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