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Ahead of the Crowd

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While equity is a flash point in the debate over New Trier's future, size is at its heart.

Each of the three choices would also generate recurring costs beyond inflation and repairs, ranging from $2.4 million annually for one school to $7.8 million annually for two comprehensive schools, officials estimate.

For some, the price tag is paramount because they already consider their taxes high. But others worry that at least one of the choices could thrust them back to the last time that boundaries were drawn, and some residents thought that the division was unfair to Jews and the less monied.

The equity concern above all animates the three dozen parents who have braved a cold November night to settle in folding chairs at Glencoe Central School. The PTA of the Glencoe elementary district has arranged the meeting on the future of New Trier for parents of elementary and middle schoolers, the children who will be affected by the changes as soon as four years hence.

And so they listen politely to Hank Bangser, the superintendent, as he outlines the problem and the proposed solutions, and to Wes Baumann, the principal, as he provides facts about the high school. But they start to take real notice after Mary Herrmann, the assistant superintendent, shows a talking-heads video meant to explain the lab school.

A hand shoots up and a father in the front row asks, "Why out of four choices did we see a production about one choice?" He hastens to add that he loves the idea of a small high school.

The administrators reply that they produced the video because the lab school is a relative unknown compared with the other options. There was no intention to skew the debate toward that choice, they say. But the discussion seems to take off largely without them.

"I don't know how anybody can consider a big school after seeing this video," says another parent from the back, while a third breaks in with: "My son is much better off in a big high school; he likes the anonymity, the lack of cliques."

Finally, a woman in a back row who has agitated through much of the meeting explodes. "If your kid doesn't get into this school, it will seem like a private school. My tax dollars will be going to pay for somebody else's kid going to essentially a private school."

The irony of her protest--that by living in the New Trier district she has already bought the economic equivalent of most private school educations--does not reverberate in the room. Rather, the atmosphere has grown chilly with suspicion.

"I feel like I'm being tunneled into this one plan. I feel offended," another parent chides.

Bangser reminds the group that while they are right to consider what's educationally and socially best for their children, a bond referendum that is expected to follow the board's decision may well hinge on the 70 percent to 80 percent of voters with no students at home.

Two and a half hours after it began, the meeting adjourns with little sense of progress for anyone.

While equity is a flash point in the debate over New Trier's future, size is at its heart. The idea of reopening New Trier West High School with close to 2,000 students came largely from graduates of that institution, who pushed district officials to look beyond the freshman-campus alternative. Many of them believe two smaller schools are preferable to one larger one.

New Trier West operated as a four-year school with between 2,000 and 2,900 students from 1967 to 1981. For the next four years, it served only freshmen, closing as a school in 1985.

Before and after that period, New Trier has prided itself on being the big school that works.

"The literature will tell you that 4,000 kids are ridiculous, but there are no other models like New Trier," says John Neiweem, the director of physical plant for the single-school district.

Comprehensive public high schools often considered in a league with New Trier--high-performing, well-to-do, suburban--typically enroll 1,000 to 1,500 students, Superintendent Bangser says. But "we know how to be big, and we know how to do it well."

More than any other factor, Bangser and others credit the high school's 70-year-old "adviser" system with helping keep students on track. About 40 percent of the faculty serve as advisers, accepting responsibility for a group of 25 boys or 25 girls throughout their high school careers. Teachers make an initial home visit, and the groups meet every morning for 25 minutes. Eight deans, five counselors, seven social workers, and a psychologist provide services in addition to the advisers.

New Trier's offerings are extraordinary. More than 70 clubs, 26 interscholastic sports, 51 intramural activities, five plays, and three musicals a year coexist with courses at four difficulty levels in subjects from Classical Greek to Gourmet Foods.

But what may be at least equally important is that this array unfurls against the backdrop of teachers who have the opportunity to know each student well. The roughly $1 million a year that New Trier invests in its adviser system is well spent, teachers and administrators say, because it reduces the liabilities of a big school.

Graduates of New Trier West don't disagree, but they have warm memories of a bright new institution with an involved young faculty. And they believe a high school with 4,000 to 5,000 students is simply too large and impersonal.

Their argument strikes a chord with many parents who also graduated from smaller high schools and who think that two schools housing around 2,000 students each will give their children more opportunities for participation, especially in New Trier's vaunted sports and performing arts programs.

"These kids who attend New Trier are so enriched to begin with--they come from a background where parents have already taken them to lessons and on trips--that when you put 1,200 kids in a graduating class, you're limiting opportunity, cutting kids off from the flow of activity they are used to with their families," says Susan Tepperman. She and her husband, Rob, both New Trier West graduates, fought for consideration of two schools.

The faculty was encouraged by school board members who told them to explore "education on the edge of possibility."

Their point of view is not lost on the faculty. Rick Malnati is in his second year as New Trier's varsity basketball coach. "I just got through with cuts," he said last month, "and there are kids who would have made the varsity basketball team if there were two schools. Some of those kids were heartbroken."

But teachers and administrators also contend that the level of competition means even the very best are challenged at New Trier. And with four orchestras, seven choral groups, and four jazz bands of different types and levels, for instance, almost every student can find the right place.

"If you are looking for a unique combination of enthusiasm and talent that comes together in every area, you won't get it in the same degree" at a smaller school, Bangser argues, even as he acknowledges the advantages of a two-school plan.

The radicals in this debate come from the faculty, encouraged by school board members who told them to explore "education on the edge of possibility." Studying the growing body of research that suggests small schools are better than big ones, about a dozen teachers under Assistant Superintendent Herrmann have designed a school that would be a voluntary alternative to New Trier--and serve what some researchers say is an ideal number of students, just 650.

"We reasoned that the biggest choice is one around school size," Herrmann says. "And we asked: What kinds of opportunities can we provide for kids in a smaller setting?"

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