At a recent meeting of the Hinsdale Township High School District 86 school board, two-term board member Jennifer Planson brought up the question on the feasibility of merging the district’s two high schools (Hinsdale South and Hinsdale Central) into one two-building school. Freshmen and sophomores would attend one campus with upperclassmen going to the other. (You can read the Chicago Tribune story here.) Doing this would create one large high school with two campuses, as is the case with local high schools in Lyons Township and Lake Park (in Roselle). While I’d guess that this kind of change in District 86 is unlikely, studying the pros and cons of the idea is certainly worthy of the board’s time. (For those of you new to this blog, I worked in the English Department at Hinsdale South for twenty-five years, retiring in 2012).
Planson herself made it very clear in raising this issue that she has no opinion one way or the other on the merits of this idea, but it does bring several issues that surround the schools into sharper focus and helps everyone to understand how the high schools function. The choice to remain two distinct high schools or to merge into one will also allow discussions on the district’s top priorities to take place. That those discussions might not always be easy ones shouldn’t stop them from happening since there on benefits and drawbacks to both arrangements which is why not every school district in the area uses the same organization—back in the day when I attended Libertyville High School in Lake County, there was a freshman building separate from the sophomore, junior, and senior campus. Every situation is unique, so it’s worthwhile to examine all possibilities.
The key reason for considering this is the enrollment imbalance at the two schools. Central has over 2,800 students with projections for even more, which is straining its facilities. South has been declining the past few years and currently has fewer than 1,700 students in attendance. The question then becomes is it economically reasonable to build yet another addition at Central to accommodate the current numbers while South has room to spare. Instead, if whole classes of freshmen and sophomores were in one building with juniors and seniors in the other, capacity needs would be roughly equal for both campuses. Given Central’s growth in recent years, there would probably still need to be some renovation for South to be able to hold half of District 86’s students. Once that had been done, however, building additions would most likely cease as both campuses would be able to deal with future fluctuations more easily. In the past twenty years, both schools have been subject to multiple renovations to meet attendance needs, at the cost of tens of millions of dollars. So, does the district add on again at Central—which may or may not be all that is needed over the long term, or should a smaller addition take place at South which could end this cycle of over-crowding at both schools leading to piecemeal, temporary solutions. Make each building capable of serving half of what experts believe is the maximum capacity necessary, and the crisis-building mode cycle in which District 86 has found itself repeatedly over the last twenty years would finally end.
Besides capacity equalization, there are other benefits from a merger: If every freshman English I or World Studies class is taught in the same building under the auspices of a single department chair, the classes should be more uniform than the same number of English I or World Studies sections taught in two buildings with two department chairs overseeing two sets of teachers. It’s just easier for one group of teachers with one boss to interact and work toward similar goals than it is when two locations and multiple leaders impact how things function. Time to cooperate between departments in the different high schools has always been extremely limited in District 86—the last several years I worked at Hinsdale South, we had a single half-day institute where the two English departments would meet. And at that once-a-year meeting, for the final three years of my career, an outside speaker was brought in, meaning we had absolutely no time for teachers to talk to one another. This separation and isolation of those teaching the same classes in the same district is a significant issue in District 86, and a merger would greatly enhance all teachers at the same grade level being able to plan with each other.
A further benefit would be cost savings. No, personnel would not shrink, at least not much. You’d still need roughly the same number of teachers, administrators, and support staff; but sports would be much cheaper with a single high school. While this issue will also be part of the negatives we discuss, there’s no question that going from two varsity football, basketball, and volleyball programs to one would save a lot of money. From coaches to uniforms to buses, the district would need significantly less cash for sport programs. While there might be a team or two added which would keep the savings from being 50% (say, some junior varsity teams could be added on top of sophomore teams already in place, and more B teams at the freshman level could be created to supplement the A teams), my guess is that you could spend at least 40% less overall on sports if the two high schools became one. You could also assume that the combined teams would be more competitive at the state level with that many more potential players for each team. It’s silly to claim that this should be an overriding concern after Hinsdale Central walked away with eight different state championships in the 2014-15 school year (and has already won Girls and Boys Golf this year), but hey, nobody would complain if that went to ten or even twelve with a single high school. Cost of athletics and competitiveness would be two ways that the merger would benefit District 86.
But there would be fewer opportunities for kids to participate on those teams. We mentioned that a couple of lower-level teams could be added to get a more athletes involved, but there could still only be eleven varsity football players on the field. This would be especially hard during the first couple of years when star players at one school would suddenly become bench warmers while some athletes who had been on squads for two or three years might get cut. Then there would be the problem of which coaches would be retained and which would not, as well as demoting half the head varsity coaches. You would also have the challenge of coming up with a new mascot for those teams. It would be way too controversial to become the Hornets while dumping the Red Devils (or vice versa), and trying to combine them just doesn’t work—the Red Hornets or the Black and Gold Devils—the Devil Hornets? There would definitely be major problems about condensing the teams, coaches, and creating a new school identity.
And that leads to another problem with a merger: Combining two schools with long histories and cultures into one new entity would be hard to do psychologically. Yes, you might eliminate some of the class warfare that has taken place over the years with both schools stereotyping the other. At South, Central students were often characterized as rich snobs who were spoiled rotten; and at Central, South got portrayed as a dangerous ghetto by some. My favorite District 86 myth was the widely circulated story that once upon a time some Central students were planning a field trip into the Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago (now demolished, but then notorious for gang activity), but were told by “somebody” (the story had a variety of culprits in this role) that it would be much easier and quicker just to travel over to South to witness the same type of environment. That kind of ignorance and bias would be lessened as both sides of District 86 got to know each other more thoroughly, but you could anticipate many hurtful and damaging comments coming from both South and Central backers as the merger was debated and came closer to reality. While the physical merger could happen from one school year to the next, there’s no question that a cultural merger would take much longer. I’m not saying it would be like the intense racial problems of Remember the Titans, but if a merger does happen, it wouldn’t be a bad idea for Denzel Washington to take all community members away to a remote camp to work out some issues in order to foster South/Central bonding, not to mention choreographing a cool dance the football players could do as they take the field.
Other issues are less clear as positives or negatives. From a teacher’s perspective, teaching different classes would be limited since all course offerings wouldn’t be available at both buildings. For most of my twenty-five years at South, I got to teach both freshmen and seniors (English I Honors and Expository Writing being my most common combination), and I loved the contrast between the dorky ninth graders and pseudo-mature twelfth graders. However, some teachers like to limit the breadth of their preparations, and we do live in an age of specialization, so having a single prep and/or age group might be preferable to them. Course offerings would also be a mixed bag as it would be tough to have some of the electives now available at both buildings with a single high school. Without all grade levels in each building, some courses like acting or ceramics might not have enough registrants to justify a class at each school, and the logistics of getting students back and forth between campuses would be challenging given the three-mile distance between them. Conversely, with almost double the freshmen (or seniors) in one building, some other electives that have struggled to attract enough registrants might now have more than enough. Latin and German are two courses at South, for example, that often are forced to have multiple levels (German III, German IV, and Advanced Placement German IV, for example) in a one classroom and period. Combining all juniors and seniors in a single building could alleviate that issue, allowing for more concentrated study and less fragmentation for teachers.
Another “unclear” issue would be the make-up of students in each building. A merger would mean that the age range would be halved in each building. It’s uncertain how beneficial or harmful it is for freshmen to be exposed to seniors and vice versa, and no one really has shown whether having only two age groups in a high school has any positive or negative effects; but it would be different than it is now. It would probably take years to figure out whether the change was overall good or bad, but there’s no doubt that it would have some effect. Diversity would change as well. According to the 2014 Illinois school report card, Central students are 76% white, 15% Asian, 4% Hispanic, and 2.5% black, with 6.3% of those low income; contrasted to South’s 57% white, 20% black, 10.5% Asian, and 10% Hispanic, with 27.4% low income. Would the increased diversity broaden some sheltered people’s perspectives or drive them to private schools? Would exposure to more wealthy or poor individuals improve perspectives or lead to more clashes and hurt feelings? Teenagers are notorious for extremes in emotions, so any changes would have impacts—there’s just no way to know whether they would be beneficial or problematic in the long term.
All of which leads me to believe that most District 86 residents will not want to take the risks of changing two already top-notch high schools, and the merger won’t happen. It is encouraging, however, that just one year after District 86’s divisive and controversial teacher contract negotiations last fall to see the new board majority is focusing on issues that really matter. Yes, we still have the foolishness of some board members trying to file grievances against community members who said “mean-spirited” things or refusing to drop lawsuits against District 86 employees, but at least those embarrassments have become side shows to the important work the rest of the school board is doing. And while many might find it prickly to confront some of the issues that considering a merger will bring up, everyone should be thankful that at least now the community is debating meaningful questions and not worrying about if somebody’s doctorate title is being appropriately used in e-mail communications or if community members will be allowed to attend press conferences held by board negotiations teams. Whether or not District 86 moves to consolidate its two schools into one, there’s little doubt that the school board members, at least most of them, are moving in a much more positive direction.