At its May 5 meeting, the Park School Advisory Board discussed two recommendations from the Long Range Planning Committee that could keep the school open past the next academic year. The committee has been meeting for more than a year to find ways to cover the costs of operating the school, which serves students with special needs that cannot be met in their home schools.

One option is to expand services for students on the autism spectrum “at the younger and high school/transition” age. The second is to use two classrooms to operate an alternative high school “for internalizing emotionally disturbed students.”

After both District 65 and District 202 have analyzed each option from an educational and a financial standpoint, each will make a recommendation to both School Boards, and the Boards will try to come up with a consensus. Although no specific dates have been set, members of the Advisory Board – composed of representatives of the administration and School Board of each District – appeared to be conscious of the need to inform families of Park School in a timely manner of possible changes to the school that might occur as early as the fall of 2016.

Reductions in State funding and inequalities in reimbursement policies, which are expected to continue, coupled with a push by local school districts to minimize the out-placement of students, have led to decreases in revenues and enrollment at this school at 828 Main St. Families whose children attend the school consider the school a treasure for their children who have severe and complex developmental and physical disorders.

Since 1970, the school has operated under a joint agreement between School Districts 65 and 202, and students from both Districts attend the school, as do students from other districts. At present, 65.5 students ages 2-20 are enrolled at the school: 27 from District 65; 24.5 (one student “aged-out” mid-semester) from District 202, and 14 from other districts. Enrollment has declined over the past decade and a half, from a high of 81 in 2001-2, to 71 in 2011-12 to the present 65.

Mounting Costs

The push for inclusion at the local district level is one contributing factor to the decline in enrollment at Park. The Long Range Planning Committee began looking at options almost a year and a half ago, and in November of last year, the only proposal put before the committee was that District 202 would educate its special needs students in-house rather than at Park.

Although the issue has not been brought before the District 202 Board for full discussion, administrators have said they believe that the necessary services can be provided at Evanston Township High School, a move that would reduce costs to the District.

Earlier this year, District 202 Superintendent Dr. Eric Witherspoon told the RoundTable, “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.” That was before Governor Bruce Rauner proposed further cuts to special education and school transportation.

After District 202 indicated that it planned to establish a place for its Park School students at Evanston Township High School, Park School parents and teachers attended two separate School Board meetings and described how their children, many with severe and complicated disabilities, found a home and a way to thrive at Park School.

Members of the Long Range Planning Committee came up with five options, some of them without District 202 students. The two options presented to the Advisory Board at the May 5 meeting, however, would include District 202 students and entail a continued financial commitment from both School Districts.

The Options

Both options would keep Park School in operation but would entail some reconfiguration of the building.

In presenting the options to the Advisory Board, Park School Principal Dr. Marlene Grossman said, “We were looking at things that would fit together if the building were repurposed. … It was a group effort and everybody worked really, really hard.”

The first option, expanding services to students on the autism spectrum “at the younger age and the older age would require a different building configuration,” said Dr. Grossman. That option could increase the enrollment at Park and have only Park students in the building.

The second option would entail a second school in the building: dedicating “two classrooms at Park for the purposes of operating an alternative high school for internalizing emotionally disturbed students.” These are not “students with naturally aggressive behavior,” said Dr. Grossman, “but are outplaced because they could not handle the school environment.”

The two classrooms would be rented from Park and staffed by ETHS. This option could bring back some ETHS students who are out-placed now, said Dr. Grossman.

Enrollment and Revenue

Stacey Rubin, interim director of special education at ETHS said, “We have numerous students –more than 100 in private placements or schools.” She said some students have social and behavioral issues, and some are also on the autism spectrum. “You can’t separate these out.”

Joyce Bartz, director of special education at District 65, said, “We have an increasing number of children with autism. … We thought this was a population we could take in and develop programming with Have Dreams,” an organization that offers programs, training, services and family support to persons with autism ages 16 months through adulthood.

A parent who attended the meeting said his son is in the communication-disorder classroom. He said the option of expanding autism services “seems like a great option. Autism is not going away. … Kids with autism will fit right in.”

Advisory Board members differed as to whether they thought it would be possible to increase the number of students at Park without either of the proposed options. District 202 administrators were more pessimistic about the possibility. One parent said she believed previous policies at District 65 contributed to the declining enrollment, which carried over to a reduced number of ETHS students at Park.

William Stafford, chief financial officer at District 202, said he believed the enrollment at Park would continue to decline because school districts are trying to educate their students in their home districts. “Can we get more students? I believe the answer is ‘no.’”

Richard Rykhus, a District 65 Board member and a member of the Long-Range Planning Committee said he believed that if the school were marketed not just to other districts but to parents, the enrollment would increase.

Margaret Storey, a Park School parent and a member of the long-range planning committee said, “Park School was not encouraged to flourish under the previous administration. In the last two or three years, those policies have changed. All I’m asking is for the committee to take seriously what consequences policy changes have on this school. … These students are not going away. It is essential to … really look at what has happened in the last eight years.”

In 2007, the student population at Park was 72; it increased to 75 until 2010 then began the decline to the present 65.

Mr. Stafford said he believed the projections would indicate otherwise. 

“We have 14 tuition-paying students,” said Mr. Stafford. “We’re going to lose five and we won’t replace them. This increases costs by 20% because of the loss of tuition-paying students.”

Ms. Bartz said the issue is revenue “when they pay tuition. The savings is in keeping our students here.”

Next Steps

Dr. Witherspoon suggested each School District analyze each option using two criteria: “Is this going to be a better educational setting for the children?” and “Is it going to contribute to the financial stability of the school?” Ideally, he said, the answers to each would be “yes.”

District 65 Superintendent Paul Goren said, “We’ll pursue the two options, and have the administrators and the Boards look at ‘Will this be a better setting for children?” and ‘How much will it cost?’”

Both Superintendents agreed that it would be good to have the analyses completed as soon as possible in order to prepare Park families for whatever changes might come in the fall of 2016.