District 86 Should Not Expand Its Buffer Zone


I worked for thirty-three years as an English teacher, the last twenty-five of which were spent in Hinsdale Township High School District 86.  District 86 encompasses Darien, Hinsdale, Willowbrook, Oakbrook, Clarendon Hills, and Burr Ridge; and is composed of two high schools, Hinsdale South and Hinsdale Central.  And that’s probably the only time you will ever see Hinsdale South listed ahead of Hinsdale Central.  Don’t get me wrong—I worked at South and believe it to be an exceptional school by any standard.  However, Central has always been perceived (by most) to be the “better” of the two schools, and those of us who taught at South had to deal with that perception, regardless of how untrue or unfair the comparison was.

So I can’t deny my South inferiority complex only intensified my irritation the other day when I saw the District 86 school board was planning to increase the size of its infamous “buffer” zone because some parents wanted their kids to be able to go to Central instead of South. (You can read the Tribune article on this here.)  For those of you unaware of District 86’s buffer zone, it is a strip of houses in the middle of the district’s attendance area where parents have the option of choosing which school their children attend.  (A map showing the current buffer zone can be viewed at this site.)  Although it may seem reasonable to allow choice in a school district, the reality is that the buffer zone’s existence has always been a slap in the face of South, and this new expansion only reopens this old wound.

From National Merit finalists to state championships to ACT scores, Central garners more accolades than South.  So it should come as no surprise that parents whose children are scheduled to go to South might wish they could attend Central instead.  And back in the day (legend has it when a particularly adroit tennis player was scheduled to attend South), a school board determined that it would permit certain geographical sections of the District 86 attendance area to select between the two high schools.  I wasn’t in the district at this time, but I’m sure the concept of balancing attendance so that neither high school would be disproportionately larger than the other would have been the main rationale given to allow this.

But that’s clearly not the case anymore, if it ever were.  On the most recent Illinois Report Cards (2014-15 school year), Central’s enrollment was 2,813, which is 1,219 more than South’s 1,594 (any school’s report card can be found at https://www.illinoisreportcard.com/).  So if “balance” were still the issue, the only solution would be to redistrict so that more students attended South since almost twice as many kids go to Central—and no, that is not going to happen any time soon, as can be seen in the district’s building plans (more on that later).  Instead, the one reason provided for this latest request was that given the location of certain houses currently required to attend Hinsdale South, students have to cross Plainfield Road to reach the school, which parents feel is too dangerous.  That safety concern was apparently enough to convince the board, even though 75th and Route 83 would also seem to be roads equally, if not more, threatening to any student who might have to cross them.  And if safety is the issue, then it would not be difficult to provide more busses to ensure no one has to walk to or from either school.

However, what I believe is the key motivation behind this desired expansion is revealed in a quote attributed to one of the parents making the request, who said he would like his kids to have “a choice, based on the educational opportunities that differ between the two schools.”  And that’s the public perception myth which the school board should have quickly and vehemently crushed when it arose.  If that were true—that there are different educational opportunities provided by the two schools—then there should be a much bigger hue and cry over this issue.  “Different opportunities” implies quantitative measures would show one school was better than the other in providing educational growth opportunities for its students.  I’m not talking about ACT scores, which are most positively correlated to parents’ income and education level, both of which are greater in the Central attendance area.  No, what’s being implied here is that Central’s course offerings, programs, facilities, and/or staff provide superior opportunities for two equally talented students, and this parent believes he should be able to send his child to that better school.  And that’s a poor opinion for ANY school board to foster, much less encourage by agreeing to the change.

That’s not to say that a student would have exactly the same experience in the two schools.  Of course there are differences:  Virtually every human being in South is different from those in Central, and that difference alone makes it impossible for any one person to have the same experience in the two places.  The goal of the school district isn’t to provide exactly the same experience for every individual regardless of the location.  No, the district’s mission should be to provide its students with the same opportunities.  But because of those aforementioned test scores, there are some who believe that the standards to which students are held are lower at South than at Central.  As someone who taught advanced English courses at South (Advanced Placement seniors for five years and honors freshmen for twenty-two), I know that is not the case—whenever we compared the data on various tests (ACT or AP, for example), the performance of the top students at South was always comparable to (and sometimes even better than) the top kids at Central, as defined by who was in the two schools’ honors programs.  The difference was that Central had more academically talented kids overall, not that South didn’t challenge its students.  And rather than pointing this out to those requesting the buffer zone’s growth, the school board simply caved, accepting the unspoken but clear denigration of the academic rigor at South.

So the bias against one of the two District 86 high schools will continue.  If you recall, last October the school board brought up and then quickly dropped the idea of merging the two schools with all freshmen and sophomores attending one of the two schools with juniors and seniors at the other (à la Lyons Township high schools).  There was probably little chance of that happening, but it got jettisoned before any interesting and potentially helpful discussion could take place.  My (unsupported) belief is that those in the Central attendance area made board members very aware that they had no interest in combining the two schools.   Now, the board is needlessly expanding the buffer zone to placate a few parents who prefer Central.  And this fall, the district is advocating a referendum of up to $94.2 million in new funds for building modifications to the two schools: $84 million for Central (including adding twenty new classrooms/labs) and $10 million to modify the cafeteria, auditorium, and library at South.  (You can read about this plan here.)  Obviously the plan is to continue to expand Central, despite South’s having room for many more students.  With fewer than 1,600 students, South is at least 300 pupils below its capacity; and you could probably accommodate another 500 without any new building additions needed—we were over 2,000 students without overcrowding for many of the years I taught there.  Again, however, the unspoken taboo of never changing attendance areas so that those currently slated to go to Central would have to go to South prevents this from even being brought up, much less seriously considered.  And that could result in a revenue increase being approved with almost 90% of the new money being spent on the “favored” school.

You might remember the controversy that surrounded the District 86 school board almost two years ago when a four-board-member majority tried to change the district radically for the worse, and we would be remiss if we didn’t point out how much better the district has been run since the April 2015 school board elections when the current majority took over.  So I do want to temper my criticisms here by acknowledging that.  That said, however, we can’t ignore this error in judgement that increases the public perception that the two high schools in District 86 might be better known as Hinsdale Central and Hinsdale Lite (“Teaches great, but less filling!”).  And no, the couple of kids who might go to Central as a result of this new buffer zone expansion won’t change any building or teaching plans in District 86.  But the reinforcement of the misguided belief that Central is a bastion of academic wonder whereas South is for lesser students is a real disservice to the quality education South teachers provide.  Here’s hoping the board will reconsider this change and work harder to help the community understand just how equally excellent both high schools are.

For more on avoiding administrative mistakes and helping teachers to make public education as good as it can be, check out my eBook, Snowflake Schools.  You can read excerpts here.



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