Concerns about potential segregation and the loss of a neighborhood school continued to dominate discussions at a community forum hosted by Woodstock School District 200 Sept. 20.
The meeting at Woodstock High School was the last in a series of sessions held on a proposal which includes closing Dean Street Elementary School and creating separate mono- and dual-language schools for first- through fifth-graders.
School officials have said the plans would reduce costs, decrease empty classroom space and give teachers more opportunities to collaborate. But as had been the case at some previous meetings, many residents who spoke at the Sept. 20 forum were leery of the proposal. Most cited worries over changes to attendance boundaries, how the closure of Dean would impact students and the surrounding neighborhood, or whether a plan to separate children by language program would result in de facto segregation.
“Woodstock is very cutting-edge when it comes to accepting other communities, accepting other languages,” said Andres Ortiz, who came to Woodstock from Mexico as a young child and attended District 200 schools. “I think other school districts look up to us, but at the same time, do we want to become that school district that segregated their kids as an unintended consequence? I know you guys aren’t intending to do that.”
Ortiz’s children are in dual-language classes, which are open to native English- and Spanish-speakers and which use a curriculum taught in both languages. Parents choose to enroll their children in the program, which currently is offered at all elementary schools except Greenwood, but Ortiz anticipates participation among non-Spanish speakers will drop if the proposal goes through. Parents can pull their children out of the program at any point, but they can only enroll them during the first few years of elementary school.
“When you force a parent to choose between their neighborhood school and continuing in a program that teaches their student a second language, we can’t assume that every single parent is going to keep their kids in the program,” Ortiz said. “Therefore, we have the disparate impact of segregating our kids when that wasn’t our intention.”
Splitting elementaries by language curriculum would shift the district’s demographics. Based on current enrollment, Prairiewood Elementary School, slated to become a monolingual building under the proposal, would see its nonwhite student population drop from 44 percent to 22 percent. At Olson Elementary School, which would house a dual-language program, the nonwhite population would increase from 41 percent to 62 percent, according to the district’s calculations.
Woodstock’s Ryan Gerry, a district parent, said he wants to see students in the dual- and mono-language programs interact more with one another, not be placed in different buildings.
“I valued that there was a mix of ethnicities and income levels [in Woodstock’s schools], and my concern is, with this plan, things are going to be more separated,” Gerry said.
District 200 officials are considering the changes in an effort to cut costs and better use classroom space following years of stagnant or declining enrollment. Separating mono- and dual-language students isn’t expected to save money, although district officials have said it would improve collaboration and allow for multiple sections of classes at each school. The plan to close Dean could save about $600,000 a year.
Woodstock’s Rick Bellairs, a real estate agent, gave credit to the Board of Education for looking for ways to cut spending. He said property tax bills are a major concern for homebuyers.
“Anything you can do to cut the taxes will help each and every one of our neighborhoods,” Bellairs said.
In addition to closing Dean and changing the elementary structure, the proposal, created by a committee, includes plans to sell the district’s administrative building and rent out available space in its high schools. Repurposing the Dean building for offices and for the programs currently housed at Clay Academy — while also shuttering the Clay building — is under consideration as well.
The school board is expected to take action on the proposed changes later in the school year.