As the 2017-18 school year begins, one district continues to deal with an old problem. If you’re at all familiar with the attendance-balancing conundrum faced by Hinsdale Township High School District 86, home to Hinsdale South and Hinsdale Central High Schools, the news that the school board is planning to hire a public opinion research firm to figure out what the community believes should be done to solve the matter might have led you to some significant eye rolling. Since I taught English for twenty-five years at South, as well as having been active in the Hinsdale High School Teachers Association (HHSTA) for most of that time, I could only shake my head at the prospect of an outside agency being hired ($52,000 is the proposed budget) to gauge (gouge?) public sentiment while soliciting input on the solutions most favored by the community. Yet, I do understand the difficulty the board faces, which has led to this course of action.
In case you don’t know about all the drama in District 86 over attendance: For the past several years, Central’s student population has been rapidly growing while South’s is shrinking. On the most recent Illinois Report Card, Central had 1281 more students than South (2834 vs. 1553). More problematic is that Central’s numbers are above what district administrators feel the building can handle, while South is roughly 400 below its capacity. “Not much of a problem,” you might think, since it seems obvious that students could be moved from one high school to the other. And even if the district chose not to transfer any students who had already begun attending Central, you might conclude it would make sense to shift some incoming freshmen from Central to South each year, which would gradually even out both schools’ totals. But you would be very naive to underestimate how challenging either of those actions would really be.
You see, parents in the Central attendance adamantly do NOT want their children to go to South. This has been proven repeatedly whenever the board has even hinted at moving students. Last year, when the board broached the topic of changing the district’s “buffer” zone (an area in the middle of the district where parents can pick which of the two high schools their children attend—almost all choose Central) so that those students would now have to attend South, hundreds of parents showed up, with the overwhelming majority protesting the possibility of not being able to send their kids to Central. Soon thereafter, the board tabled even forming a committee to look at attendance issues, preferring to bury the matter in the overall strategic plan for the district. (For me, one particularly surreal moment occurred at that meeting when a board member apologized to Central parents for “stressing” them by considering shifting their kids to South.) Then, this past spring, the board attempted to pass a referendum which would have funded a Central building expansion to accommodate the growing Red Devil masses, effectively increasing the imbalance with an ever-growing Central campus. But district voters soundly rejected the proposal by a three-to-one margin.
If you’d like to read a more detailed account of all this (flavored liberally, of course, with my own insights), you could check out my other essays on this topic, starting chronologically with this one from May 2016, followed by another one in September that same year, topped off by this analysis after the referendum was voted down in April, 2017. While I heartily recommend this journey down memory lane in its entirety (and there are others, if you’re game), the bottom line of all this doesn’t offer any solutions which won’t anger a hearty portion of one section of the district or the other. Current Central parents will be livid if they can no longer send their kids to Central, and South folks will not be happy to see their taxes increased to add on to Central when there is more than adequate space already available in South. There really aren’t many solutions to this problem outside of these two, which would seem to lead to disgruntled residents no matter which is selected.
But you would misjudge human creativity if you felt those two options couldn’t be finessed to make them seem more palatable, or at least hidden—it’s just that those are the only two that follow the letter of the law and spend tax dollars most reasonably. Another couple of ideas floated over the years are even more radical or risk being horribly offensive and morally questionable. First, some have suggested merging the two schools, which would result in one campus inhabited by freshmen and sophomores, with the other populated by juniors and seniors. This new Hinsdale Township High School would definitely solve all the balancing problems (even though it would create others—most notably to some, the elimination of half of the district’s varsity sports programs), and there could be little question that this would offer all District 86 students equal academic opportunities. One high school instead of two would be such a huge change for everyone, though, that it is hard to see it getting any serious consideration, or being endorsed by many on the proposed public opinion surveys.
The other, shadier idea which has been suggested would be creating an elite “school within a school” at South which would house a small, advanced group of students. I’ve disliked this idea from the start as a somewhat cynical publicity stunt to convince Central people it was safe to journey into the wilderness they believe South to be, where their sheltered children could pursue their more advanced studies, isolated from the unwashed masses that populate the rest of the building. The official concept District 86 has considered for this is an International Baccalaureate program, which I have nothing against and appears to be a solid, worthwhile concept. The catch, however, is that the Advanced Placement classes already in place serve essentially the same purpose, and no one is suggesting the elimination of any A.P. classes in District 86. Instead, this idea is a misleading way to trick parents into thinking the school-within-a-school approach would be much better than the programs already in place, an extremely shaky premise given the excellent education currently being provided at both schools. What the I.B. proposal really facilitates is a way to segregate any Central students who might enroll in it from the general population at South. No one will ever admit that, and I’m sure this hidden bias would be denied vehemently by all District 86 board members and administrators; but it is a bit odd that during my twenty-five years teaching high-level classes at South, nobody ever broached this idea or even hinted our honors programs were lacking. In my opinion, the I.B. idea has surfaced as a means to balance attendance, not as something for which there is a curricular need. That it takes several years and significant retooling to be certified as an I.B. school, however, makes this approach seem unlikely to address a problem which needs decisive action sooner rather than later.
The one tried-and-true method for solving overcrowding is for the school board to use accumulated tax money combined with issuing new bonds in order to add on to Central without subjecting these new expenditures to the referendum process. You might be shocked that the board would be able to circumvent the normal process for new building projects (that is, seeking permission from its electorate before committing millions of tax dollars to expansion; i.e., a referendum), but this has been done repeatedly over the years. Any and all new building in District 86 since South was constructed in the 1960s was funded this way—and that would include field houses, science lab wings, air conditioning, and annexes, to name a few, totaling over $75 million (conservatively). That the board sought referendum approval in the spring of 2016 before proceeding with additions is actually an outlier when compared to typical District 86 operating practices: No property tax increases for new construction have been approved through referendums in over fifty years, yet many significant building projects have been completed during that time.
So it is still possible that Central could be expanded over the decisive margin of objections evidenced through the recent referendum of District 86’s electorate. To its credit, however, school board members are trying to involve the community in the ultimate decision, hence the proposed hiring of a public relations firm to assess community opinions. Yes, it would seem pretty obvious what community opinion is at this point given the crushing defeat of the referendum proposal this past spring, but that defeat did not resolve the overcrowding at Central, which is only getting worse.
And it is possible, maybe, that the survey could provide helpful information on the key question that has impeded the most fiscally responsible solution to this problem: Why are Central area residents so opposed to redistricting attendance boundaries for better balance, which would mean some students currently slated to attend Central would be moved to South?
Clearly, the answer to that pivotal question is not simple, direct, or even totally understood at a conscious level by many opposed to the change. Without a doubt, the most significant and readily accessed reasons have to do with the quality education Central has provided over the years. Consistently rated as one of the best high schools in America, Hinsdale Central has a proud tradition of academic and extra-curricular excellence as evidenced by the success its students have in elite colleges, their professional lives after graduation, and how often Central racks up Illinois High School Association (IHSA) sports championships. Most people resist change, especially when that which is to be changed is regarded as exemplary. Many residents of the Central attendance area selected their homes and paid a premium price (Oakbrook, Hinsdale, and Clarendon Hills are NOT cheap places to buy real estate) particularly because it meant their children would be able to go to Central. To have that switched to South will not be received well, regardless of South’s own excellence.
But that’s where things start to go wrong, to get twisted, to get an ugly sheen which contains hints of racism, class snobbery, and economic bigotry. As someone who taught for twenty-five years at South, I know how good it is, and the shrill resistance of Central residents to sending their children there often seems hurtful both to the teachers and students who go to South every day. I’ve been over my opinion of South’s high quality several times (see the previously referenced blog entries for more on that), but the rumors and myths many Central people accept as truth about South destroys anyone’s ability to convince them of how good the school is, and most significantly to believe the opportunities afforded South students are in every way equal to those at Central. Unfortunately, it will come as no surprise to anyone when the public opinion firm verifies what everyone already knows—South is perceived within the Central attendance area as more dangerous, less academically rigorous, and generally a huge step down from Central in preparing kids for college and providing them with an education anywhere near as good as the one Central provides. That the top students at South go just as far as Central’s elite—although fewer in number—is disregarded; some may even believe those kids achieve despite going to South, not because of it. Unless this public opinion firm can somehow alter those negative perceptions many Central residents have about South, nothing but confirmation of the status quo will come from the $52,000 the board is planning to spend.
Why South has such a bad reputation on the Central side of town and how that can be changed is a discussion nobody wants to have, but it’s at the heart of any solution to District 86’s attendance issues. To some, the whole time-consuming exercise (to say nothing of the cost) of public opinion surveys does little but delay needed resolutions to the issue. And others would argue that more time is all the board is really seeking by postponing a direct confrontation on this controversy, now that the referendum solution has failed. As the last board did a year ago when it tabled any discussions of what to do; in hiring a public opinion company, the current board could be accused of kicking the controversy down the road another year or so. And as has happened each time the board has avoided hard decisions, the problem hasn’t gone away, emerging later in an even more acute state.
While we can empathize with the difficult situation in which District 86 school board members find themselves, it is hard to believe that an outside public opinion research firm will be able to discover a magic solution which will make everyone happy. Regardless, something concrete has to be done. In an extensive demographic report created in 2015, attendance estimates were made based on “enrollment projections assuming turnover of existing housing units and family in-migration which are A. less than anticipated; B. as anticipated; or C. greater than anticipated through 2029-2030.” And under all three scenarios, significantly more students are projected for Central until at least 2030. Even more ominous is that last year’s attendance at both schools was closer to the high projection (C) with Central actually 37 students beyond that largest projection (2797 projected vs 2834 actual). Eventually, the school board will have to decide if it is going to change attendance zones and send students who originally were slated to attend Central to South (and anger the parents of those students) or spend millions more than is necessary through increased taxes/bonds so that Central can be enlarged despite all the space available at South (and anger everyone else).
This day of reckoning can only be put off for so long. Not only are Central students suffering with overly crammed facilities and decreasing course offerings, but South’s students face issues too. Numerous faculty members have been transferred to Central, which leads to an unsettled atmosphere and fewer services (like the English Department’s Writing Lab) offered. It’s hard not to see actions like hiring a public opinion research firm as anything more than delaying tactics which will make necessary solutions even more unpalatable to everyone later.
For more on the challenges facing public education and common sense ideas to meet them, check out my e-book, Snowflake Schools, which can be previewed here.