Ahead of the Crowd
|Prestigious New Trier High School expects 1,000 new students by 2010. The district, with residents paying close attention, has been planning well in advance for what to do with the newcomers.|
Well-heeled couples, young children and nannies in tow, have been snapping up expensive houses in the neighborhoods that make up the New Trier high school district north of Chicago.
Like the residents who came before them, many newcomers already feel possessive about the renowned public school that drew many of them here.
But their arrival means it can't stay the same. Enrollment at New Trier Township High School is expected to swell by 1,000 students during the next 10 years, far more than the current facility can accommodate.
All of this--the desire for the school, the crowding, the public's concern--poses a problem. The kind that other districts would give their Internet connections for, but a problem nonetheless.
Not that other schools haven't been burdened by crowding. Across the country, the wave of school enrollment churned up by baby boomer parents is hitting the upper grades, with public high school enrollment expected to rise 17 percent by 2006. New Trier is no different there.
But in the resources it can bring to bear on the problem and the absence of sharp concerns about safety, deteriorating facilities, and achievement, New Trier may almost be in a class by itself. Again this year, New Trier ranked first overall among Illinois high schools in scores on statewide tests, and even the bottom half of a typical graduating class scores a bit above average on the ACT college-entrance exam. True, the tradition-encrusted school faces particularly strong public sentiment when it comes to change, but even that represents an investment by the community that other schools might welcome.
New Trier officials have geared up for their problem with a raft of reports, a host of meetings, plans for a community survey, and a list of possible solutions.
At the most basic level, the options boil down to whether the new students will all be housed on the already cramped 25-acre campus in Winnetka or some of them will go to school at the former New Trier West High School about two and a half miles to the west in Northfield. The choices in Northfield include a second high school, a school for freshmen only that would feed into the existing New Trier, or a small "laboratory" school.
Whatever the school board decides in a vote expected by next June, a lot will ride on it--parents' hopes and every household's tax bills in the North Shore suburbs that send children to New Trier. Property values, school morale, and community spirit might also hang in the balance. This much is certain: In this watchful community, where a local McDonald's restaurant has to hide out in a quaint Tudor arcade and so many parents pulled their high schoolers out of courses aimed at the lowest ability level that they all but disappeared, not everyone will be pleased.
Maybe so, concede officials. But, they add, New Trier High's long track record will help see it through the coming changes. Even if parents or teachers are personally unhappy with the choice, there's confidence that the school--where per-pupil spending a year tops $13,700--can make it work.
"I see the needs of the kids met whatever the plan is," says Julie Ann Carroll, the mother of four current and past New Trier students and the secretary of the school's English department. "I've seen that over the long haul."
New Trier wasn't supposed to have such overcrowding.
Unlike rapidly expanding suburbs far from city centers, New Trier Township's tree-lined villages--Glencoe, Kenilworth, Wilmette, Winnetka and parts of three others --are almost entirely "built out." As recently as 1993, district leaders believed that New Trier's enrollment boom would top out at 3,900, about 800 more than the current number of students.
But those projections understated the willingness of empty nesters to sell their houses, and the ability of parents with young children to buy properties whose value had appreciated, in many cases, to more than $500,000.
"Lately, the land has become so valuable that when a ranch home or a bungalow comes on the market, they are bought up and torn down so that a developer can put an $800,000 house on it," says a Wilmette real estate agent. "And those are snapped up by young people between the ages of 30 and 35 with young children."
Often the draw is the schools. "They want to live in one of the five communities that feed into New Trier, even if they have a young child," says the agent, who preferred anonymity. "I hear that everyday."
|As recently as 1993, district leaders believed that New Trier's enrollment boom would top out at 3,900, about 800 more than the current number of students.|
Carol Duffy, the co-president of the New Trier Parents Association, said something similar back in 1982. She and her husband, a physician who works in downtown Chicago, had moved from Boston, where people told them, "'Chicago is a huge, crime-ridden city, but it does have New Trier.'
"Our cookie, if you will, was New Trier, and we were going to have it," she recalls.
In fact, Superintendent Henry Bangser points out that Duffy and the more recent arrivals are the third generation of parents who have sought out the township--"with incredible amounts of research, paying lots of money"--specifically for New Trier High, which opened its doors in 1901.
Even so, Bangser had not expected the projections that the school's consulting demographer supplied in 1995 and 1997. They showed enrollment climbing to a peak of 4,130 in 2010 and remaining there for the foreseeable future. "The theory is that people who bought in the '80s and '90s will leave more quickly than the last generation," thereby keeping turnover up, he explains.
The current campus has actually held more students--in 1965, just before New Trier West opened, about 4,900.
But that was a different era, with vastly different plant requirements, says Principal Wesley Baumann. Today, students take more courses and have smaller classes, requiring more labs and classrooms. Plus, the space devoted to the needs of children with disabilities is greater.
With all that in mind, school officials in 1996 began investigating expansion of various kinds, eventually narrowing the choices to four. The current campus--a conglomeration of handsome brick buildings housing, among other amenities, a swimming pool, two theaters, and a car-repair shop--could serve more students if a larger building replaced an existing one and other space was renovated. Depending on the size of the replacement building and the extent of renovation, the start-up cost of that option would run between $21 million and $30 million, officials estimate.
The other three choices involve reusing the former New Trier West High School building, where much of the space has been loaned or leased to more than a dozen community agencies and commercial groups, including a senior citizens' center, adult and special education programs, and a fitness club.
One choice would put only freshmen on that campus. Another proposes the creation of a second and comparable high school. The third calls for a smaller "lab" school emphasizing student participation and customized education plans. Of these three possibilities, the freshmen-only model comes cheapest, with start-up costs of about $23 million. Start-up for the lab school is estimated at $33 million, while a second comprehensive high school is pegged at almost $36 million.