A shadow is cast over the future of Park School, 828 Main St.    RoundTable photo

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A memo from Evanston Township High School that surfaced at the Nov. 20 meeting of the Park School Long-Range Planning Committee has raised doubts about the high school’s continued support of the school. At District 202’s Dec. 15 School Board meeting, two speakers expressed concern that ETHS may phase out its role at Park School. Board President Gretchen Livingston told the RoundTable, “No decision has been made.”

Park School, located at 828 Main St., provides services to students ages 3-21 who have severe and profound developmental disabilities. The students are taught home-living and vocational skills, in addition to reading, writing, math and physical education. The school also provides speech-language support, social work services, occupational therapy, physical therapy, hearing-impairment services, vision-impairment services and job-placement help.

Park School draws students from School Districts 65 and 202, as well as from districts outside Evanston. Yet the enrollment there is declining, in part because inclusion policies have returned students to their local schools and in part because of State policies on reimbursing families who place their children in public schools such as Park.

In 2009, District 65’s then-Superintendent Hardy Murphy sought to implement a full inclusion program at the District to get more students with a disability into general education classrooms, with supports. He said he also envisioned there would be “clusters” of services for students with a disability. He acknowledged that a full inclusion model would “transform” Park School.

Most Park School parents felt the proposal would result in the closing of Park School, and they opposed it with emotional, heart-wrenching stories. They said it was essential to have Park School as a choice for students who had severe and profound disabilities and who required highly specialized educational support, and daily access to a pool of therapists, educators, equipment and facilities under one roof. The services at Park School, they said, could not possibly be duplicated at the District’s attendance-area schools.

On Dec. 14, 2009, Jean Luft, then-president of the District Educators Council, told the District 65 Board, “Replicating the accommodations and physical structure of Park School will require a great deal of resources and energy. We have to question why the District is trying to fix Park School when the families and staff have indicated that it is not broken.”

The District did adopt an inclusion program, but Park School remained open, in recognition that the District is required to provide a continuum of services to students with a disability. At present, 24 K-8 students and 38 District 202 students are enrolled in Park School.

More than a year ago, the two Evanston School Districts created a long-range planning committee for the school, composed of parents, teachers and administrators from both Districts. This committee is a sub-committee of the two Districts’ Park School Committee.

District 65 has presented options for continuing a relationship with Park School, said District 65 Board member Richard Rykhus at the Dec. 15 District 65 School Board meeting. Assistant Superintendent Joyce Bartz “has put some very tangible, pragmatic options on the table,” he said, adding, “District 202 is still considering what their options are.”

District 202, however, has made only one proposal: Phasing out its relationship with Park School and educating as many of its Park students as possible at ETHS.

The Nov. 20 memo states in part, “The District estimates its future total cost of students at Park School to be in excess of $1 million a year and growing. We do not believe this trend to be financially sustainable. As a matter of due diligence the administration must present to our Board of Education the policy option of phasing out of Park School as a Special Education provider. This policy option is consistent with the District’s general strategy to reduce the number of students that are in outplacement or private placement.”

In response to an email from the RoundTable, District 202 Superintendent Eric Witherspoon wrote, “One of the options that the administration asked the subcommittee to consider was the possibility of District 202 phasing out of Park School. District 65 would then have the option of repurposing parts of the school for alternative uses.” 

Dr. Witherspoon also noted several financial concerns of District 202: “One issue is the way the state reimburses certain special education costs. For privately operated facilities the state’s reimbursement rate to school districts is far greater than that for public facilities. For public facilities like Park there is nominal reimbursement, placing a much greater responsibility on our local taxpayers. Another issue is the cost of operating Park School. [Its] 66 students … are serviced by over 60 staff members. The total gross cost at Park School is about $63,500 per student, and once state revenues and student tuition are subtracted the net cost is about $31,945 per student.

“Another issue is the cost of the Park School facility itself,” continued Dr. Witherspoon. “The facility is going to require additional capital investment in the future. … Another issue is programming. More and more school districts see value in keeping students in their home school and providing them with a full-range of educational services. In our case, we would repurpose part of ETHS and fully equip and fully staff the educational space to meet all our students’ needs. But we would also have available all the other resources and programming offered at ETHS so that individualized plans for each student could maximize utilization of the educational opportunities provided at ETHS as appropriate for each student.”

Dr. Witherspoon also said the threat that the State House of Representatives would approve Senate Bill 16 looms, with the potential of “millions of dollars of lost revenue for D202 and D65. A possible pension cost shift is also looming and would cost millions of dollars for D202 and D65 taxpayers. … We should be honestly considering all options to improve and expand educational opportunities for students while at the same time reducing costs when possible.”

Mr. Rykhus told the RoundTable, “Whatever choice we make will have to consider not just finances but what the legal requirements are and what is best for kids. We can’t look at any one of these factors just in isolation.”

At the Dec. 15 meeting of the District 202 Board, Park School parent Margaret Storey, an assistant professor of history at DePaul University, said, “My daughter, Josie, is 11 and has Aicardi Syndrome, a rare and debilitating syndrome of epilepsy. She has multiple daily seizures and is unable to walk independently or talk; she is, despite what this description might suggest, a curious, engaged girl who loves school, friends, music and dancing in her walker.

“Our family moved to Evanston four years ago specifically so that Josie could attend Park. When we did so, we became part of a long tradition of families who have found this school to be the ideal setting for their children. … In 1970, Evanston again stepped forward to advance the civil rights of these children when Districts 65 and 202 established a joint agreement to fund Park and to build a new school to accommodate the rapidly growing population of students. In the joint agreement, the Districts made a commitment to support the unique environment and academic efforts of Park.

“Evanston parents are rightly proud of the excellent education that students at ETHS receive. That the community is deeply invested in its success is evident in all public discussions about the school. … Park School parents feel the same way about our school. We see in it an extraordinary level of commitment to students with very significant learning, mobility, and medical challenges – like you, we, too, believe in a community in which the standard for education is not diminished by the differences among our children, but instead raised up to meet their varied needs. …

“We parents are thus deeply concerned that District 202 appears to be seriously considering abandoning this profoundly important commitment. We ask the District to remain stewards of Park School, and the students who thrive there, and to work in good faith to make it the best possible school we can provide for this small, but precious, portion of our community.”

 Cari Levin, director of Citizens for Appropriate Special Education (CASE), said, “We’ve learned of a proposal by the District 202 administration to pull out of the joint agreement with District 65 that funds Park. This joint agreement dates back to the 1970s.” She said ETHS’s plan to “reduce the number of students that are in outplacement … would render Park unsustainable. … I urge the administration to take this misguided proposal off the table. Park students are receiving high-quality therapeutic and educational services right where they are. … Creative solutions are in order. Going forward, the proposal discussed by the Long Range Planning Committee must focus on the only appropriate goal: maintaining the viability of Park School.”

District 202 Board member Jonathan Baum told the RoundTable that the Board “has received no recommendation from the Administration that District 202 withdraw from its Park School Agreement with District 65. Should such a recommendation come to the Board, which would have to make this decision for District 202, I personally am absolutely committed to the proposition that any decision on the future of Park School be made jointly with our partners at District 65. Due to changes in its student population, Park School faces significant financial challenges. That is why the Park School Advisory Board, on which I sit, directed about a year and a half ago that a Long Range Planning Committee be established. That Committee is currently doing its work. The financial challenges Park School faces may require changes in our service delivery model, but I am committed to both Districts, working together, deciding on any such changes.”

 Ms. Livingston told the RoundTable she wished to emphasize that the Board has not yet made a decision. “There is a process and we are going to follow that process,” she said, by considering whatever recommendations the Park School Committee brings to the Board by way of the subcommittee (the long-range planning committee).

The long-range planning committee will meet on Jan. 15; shortly afterward the Park School Committee will meet, Mr. Rykhus said.