Families, teachers and other supporters of Park School attended the March 16 joint District 65/202 School Board meeting to show their belief in the school and its community. They spoke of how their children, who have severe disabilities and complex medical conditions, learn and in some cases thrive at the school at 828 Main St. They expressed concern, frustration and bewilderment that Evanston Township High School would sever its 30-year-old relationship with the school, something that, it was said, would likely devastate the school and the students. The school is designed to serve students with severe disabilities.
Because of mounting costs, reduced state aid and declining enrollment, the future of the school is uncertain. Although District officials said the school will remain intact for the 2015-16 school year, little was said about the direction the Districts might take – trying to attract more students, reconfiguring the space to allow other uses or closing the school altogether and finding alternative schools for the present students.
A memo in the packet for the meeting alluded to a “series of options” developed by a subcommittee of the Park School Advisory Board. Joyce Bartz, assistant superintendent for special services for School District 65, and Stacey Rubin, interim director of special education at Evanston Township High School, said the options are “works in progress.”
Ms. Bartz said that for next year the current model at Park School is “sustainable.” Keeping the school in its present form, she added, will “give us time to review” those options. These will be refined in early summer and then presented to the Superintendents of both Districts for review and discussion. After the superintendents reach a consensus, they will present their recommendations to the joint Boards in the fall, she said.
Nearly an hour of passionate testimony about the necessity of keeping Park School preceded Ms. Bartz’s modest presentation, as families and teachers of Park School students described how the students depend on Park School’s nurturing atmosphere.
Background on Park School
Districts 65 and 202 have operated Park School under a joint agreement for nearly 30 years. At present, 24 K-8 students and 38 District 202 students, and some students from other school districts are enrolled there. The total enrollment of 66 students is about 5 students fewer than the average enrollment in the past decade.
Local and state policies on education and special education funding have contributed to the decline in enrollment at the school. First, greater efforts toward inclusion at have allowed many special-needs students to remain in their home schools. Second, on the financial level, the State reimburses privately operated facilities for special education students at a higher rate than it does public facilities, such as Park School, possibly creating an incentive for other school districts to place special needs students in a private school rather that at Park School.
District 202 Superintendent Dr. Eric Witherspoon told the RoundTable previously, “For public facilities like Park there is nominal reimbursement, placing a much greater responsibility on our local taxpayers. … 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.”
In November 2013, the Park School Advisory Board, which has representatives from each School Board, appointed a subcommittee, the Park School Long-Range Planning Committee, to come up with recommendations about the future of the school in light of the declining enrollment.
A year later, in November 2014, District 202 provided a memo to the members of the subcommittee, stating 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.” Doing so, the memo continued, would be “consistent with the District’s general strategy to reduce the number of students that are in outplacement or private placement.” District 202 said it planned to establish a place for its Park School students at Evanston Township High School.
During the public comment period of District 202 Board meeting on Dec. 15, 2014, two persons spoke about the need for Park School and asked that the District not sever its relations with the school nor break the joint agreement to operate the school. Park School was placed as an agenda item on the March 16 joint District 65/202 Board meeting.
What Families and Teachers Said on March 16
About 40 supporters of Park School attended the joint Board meeting on March 16, about seven of whom spoke.
Patti Rohwer spoke of three “crucial elements” at Park: community, continuity and safety. Her 13-year-old daughter Stephie has “cerebral palsy, autism, impaired vision, cognitive disability and very little functional language,” Ms. Rohwer said. Nevertheless, in 10 years at Park School, Stephie “has made tremendous progress and continues to do so. She is a joyful bundle of energy who gallops about singing her songs, exploring her world. How has she been able to make such significant progress? The safety, community, and continuity of Park School. … Being comfortable with one’s environment, teachers, and routines helps children like Stephie develop the self-confidence to take educational risks and accept appropriate challenges in the school setting.”
Max has a chromosomal deletion that causes serious developmental disabilities, especially with feeding and speaking, and requires the use of a feeding tube. Yet, said his mother, Anna Guillemin, “Max is now in kindergarten and in his third year at Park, and we have been astonished by his progress. His teachers have channeled his unstoppable energy into climbing stairs, jumping, navigating obstacle courses and teetering on a balance beam. He has learned to pinch a cracker, to draw a spoon to his mouth and manipulate any number of small objects. He has gone from a toddler with no ability to concentrate to a kid who can sit at a desk, follow directions, complete tasks, and take visible pride in his accomplishments. …being the mother of Max has taught me that…excellence in education…lies in challenging students, pushing them to learn new skills, allowing them to feel valued and included, and helping them find joy and meaning in their lives. Park School provides this education to kids like Max.”
Margaret Storey’s 11-year-old daughter, Josie, has Aicardi Syndrome, a rare syndrome of epilepsy. But despite multiple daily seizures and her inability to talk or walk independently, her mother described her as a “curious, engaged girl who loves school, friends, music, and dancing in her walker.”
She said Park families see nothing wrong with Park that can not be fixed with thoughtful strategic planning; even the issue of declining enrollments has begun to improve thanks to policy changes that more proactively include Park in the range of placement options for Evanston’s children.
Despite the dramatic nature of the announcement from ETHS, she said, “no proposals have been made for how equivalent services for these students will be provided at or by ETHS.
“We are really alarmed by the tenor of this discussion. It is incredibly disheartening to find so little unity of purpose between the districts, or between the districts and parents. … We need people at the table who can see, and enact, exciting, creative opportunities at the nexus where budgets meet human beings. I understand why Park’s costs prompts concern at this time of budgetary uncertainty. The per student tuition rate is about $65,000 per year. This is high, but it is also the cost of doing business when serving kids who need major assistance simply to access their education.
“Park, like every Evanston school, will have to take its lumps if budget cuts must be made. But those lumps should be distributed equitably. Park and its students should not be sacrificed to solve budget woes that are the responsibility of all. Park is more than a budget line, or a building – it is a community. I remember what it was like to take my daughter 45 minutes away from home, to a special wing, or to a single classroom, located inside a school devoted to the interests and needs of a much larger population that –though respectful – had other agendas. Evanston, and our kids and families, deserve better. We deserve a place as rich and rigorous as Park School.”
Speaking from her experience as a substitute teacher at Park, Liz Brieva said students there are “pushed to be the best they can be.” Park students and families could, if necessary, find another placement. But “would it be the safe haven you would be looking for your child?” she asked.
Park School parent Kathy Spellman described the school as “small enough that students have access to the entire building for learning, not just a room off in a corner somewhere.”
Tearing up at times, Katie Spiro read a letter from Rhonda Cohen, Child Development and Inclusion Director at Warren W. Cherry Preschool, which said in part, “Park School is, in fact, the least restrictive environment for children whose educational, medical, and physical needs preclude them from fully accessing the educational curriculum in our neighborhood elementary and magnet schools and ETHS. … It is a true community for the children and parents who attend there. Dismantling Park School and relocating it within the walls of ETHS would destroy the very essence of what makes Park School a home away from home for children who can rarely be left outside of their parents’ care.”
Emily Minerof, whose sister attends Park School, said, “My sister has learned to say ‘Yes’ and ‘No.” I can hold up two shirts and she can pick one [to wear] – and that’s amazing. If the try to put Park School into ETHS, she will be left alone.”
District 65 Board member Richard Rykhus said, “Something that’s important to highlight is that Park School has been a great collaboration between the two Districts for a very long time. … We have the opportunity to truly look at in the future how it can continue to work … There has not been full clarity from the [District] 202 side in terms of what the programmatic options may be and if there are any more that are going to be proposed.” He also asked when a complete financial analysis might be done.
“We have been talking about the financial analysis for 16 months now. There was … some very high-level of information presented in November and an initial analysis done just a few weeks ago. … We really need to get that so that collectively we can make a decision that will move both Districts forward,” Mr. Rykhus said.
District 202 Board President Gretchen Livingston said, “No one on our Board has seen that.”
“I just want to be sure that we have the collective analysis in time to actually … make recommendations. We delayed the Park Advisory Board meeting from January to February to March and actually now to June so we could have that information,” Mr. Rykhus said.
District 202 Board member Jonathan Baum, who also sits on the Park School Advisory Board said, “I hope the members of the Advisory Board, if not the public at large, will find out sometime prior to the June meeting what these options are that we’re told the committee has developed, so we can be prepared before that meeting.”
Mr. Baum added he felt the process outlined “sounds to me like a decision by the two Districts together, and that’s very important.”
District 65 Board member Katie Bailey said, “I’ve heard that District 202 might be pulling out.”
“There was an option in writing proposing the District 202 pull out of the agreement,” said Mr. Rykhus, “and it was the only one thing that was put in writing by District 202.”
Ms. Bartz said the committee has considered “marketing the school and looking at different kinds of options we could use within the District itself. … In the last six or seven months we have been really talking about what we could do with Park School itself in terms of either getting additional enrollment, thinking about our groupings of students and what other kinds of students could we serve within the school. … So we had a variety of different ideas that we have explored.”
District 65 Board President Tracy Quattrocki said she “wanted to work backward so we can set some expectations of timing both for the community and both Boards. It sounds as though for the next year there won’t be any changes. … The proposal needs to work its way through two committees and both Boards separately and then the Boards combined. I would think … that we wouldn’t want to be saying next March something as dramatic as closing Park School. I would propose that we need to see some sort of preliminary or even finalized proposal next fall.”
District 65 Board member Suni Kartha asked for data about how much enrollment at Park School is declining or has declined over the past 10 years.
“I think our Board had some of that information a year ago,” said Ms. Livingston. “I think some of that is already available.”
District 202 Board member Pat Savage-Williams said the discussion exemplieifed how complex a process collaboration can be.
Ms. Kartha said Park School is “a very unique community, so I understand how there is so much anxiety about the future of the school. To that end, I am disappointed that we are not going to have a substantial discussion today. … We need to make sure that our families and our staff have sufficient time to understand them.”
Ms. Livingston said she felt there were varying levels of knowledge and information among the members of both Boards. “We can’t make any decision till we see the information. … What I can do is make sure we adhere to a process: [recommendations] from the long-range planning committee to the Park School Advisory Board, to the superintendents, to both Boards so we can make a decision on this.”