School Climate & Safety

Ahead of the Crowd

By Bess Keller — December 10, 1997 18 min read
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.

Winnetka, Ill.

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.

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?”

Just as the rosy glow with which some parents recall their high school days has influenced the debate so far, so does the painful memory of the district’s being torn apart to create two schools.

The school would emphasize individualized learning within and beyond the classroom. “There would be more opportunities for reflection, for interaction, and to make connections between types of knowledge,” says Doug Springer, a speech and debate teacher who is part of the design team.

Board member Phyllis Myers offers a more concrete description. “It would be a small school with block scheduling,” she says, referring to scheduling that lengthens the standard 40- or 50-minute period to allow for sustained work, often across disciplines.

Even the option of putting all the freshmen together at the West campus has a size aspect to it. Of the three alternatives being considered in lieu of one very big school, it might be the moderates’ choice.

“I think this place is daunting for freshmen,” says Carol Duffy of the parents’ association. “A place just for them could be turned to the advantage of the kids.”

But even more, she favors that solution because “I think it’s truly democratic--everyone will go that way.”

Matt Berke, a senior and the president of New Trier’s student government, calls it the option with “the least cons but maybe not as many pros.”

It would relieve enrollment pressure at New Trier without constructing a new building and without the enrollment uncertainty that would go with the lab school. And like two other choices, it avoids the dreaded issue of drawing a boundary line through neighborhoods where children have grown up and parents have bought with New Trier High beckoning.

Just as the rosy glow with which some parents recall their high school days has influenced the debate so far, so does the painful memory of the district’s being torn apart to create two schools.

It’s one reason why the school’s 280 faculty members are unlikely to take a stand as a body.

“We have fought this battle many years ago,” says Doug Chase, a social studies teacher and the co-chairman of the All-School Forum. The forum brings together board members, staff, students, and parents. It deemed the issue “too hot to handle” for a discussion last spring.

“It was a very emotional decision going from two schools to one when most of us felt we could teach kids better in a smaller environment, and it was difficult to make two schools out of one,” Chase says.

Joanne Bowers, the president of the New Trier Support Association, the support-personnel union, agrees. Just in the past two years, 10 years after New Trier West closed, the school and its staff have finally felt unified. “The scars are deep,” she says.

Marion Huyck, an English teacher, has uppermost in her mind the boundary that would have to be drawn to re-create two comprehensive high schools. She hears rumors already that some residents have made inquiries with real estate agents about moving east, nearer the existing campus.

Last time around, in 1965, the boundary for determining high school attendance was drawn roughly north to south, dividing four of New Trier Township’s villages into an east section bound for the Winnetka campus and a west section destined for the new school. Wealthier residents tended to live east, closer to Lake Michigan, and continued to go to the original school.

Jewish residents tended to live west. As a result, the Northfield school had a higher Jewish enrollment, with teenagers dubbing it--some derogatorily and some affectionately--"Jew Trier West.” (Similarly, the nearby Roman Catholic Loyola Academy was known as “Goyola,” playing on the Yiddish word for non-Jew.)

More than a few people suspected then that the boundary lines were drawn with respect to wealth or ethnicity, though officials denied it. Now, some are beginning to worry that a north-to-south line, which geographically makes the most sense, would slice off most of the existing school’s Jewish and Asian-American students. Asian-Americans comprise about 12 percent of the student body, while other minorities--including African-American and Hispanic students--together make up just 3 percent.

And even if boundaries don’t raise the ghost of prejudice, many agree that any split is likely to leave a residue of bad feeling, especially among those who must go to the new school. Thirty years ago, “the perception was that New Trier East had everything because of history,” says Sam Mikaelian, the superintendent of the Wilmette elementary district.

School officials do not underestimate the difficulty of the decision they face, but they hope to foster more public understanding by the time the seven-member board votes on the issue next spring.

School officials do not underestimate the difficulty of the decision they face, but they hope to foster more public understanding by the time the seven-member board votes on the issue next spring. Postponement is out of the question because whatever the board decides will almost certainly require a bond-issue referendum in the fall, with renovations or building to begin in spring 1999. A new arrangement could be in place by the 2001-02 school year, although reopening a four-year school on the New Trier West campus most likely would have to wait another two years because of lease agreements.

“There has to be further education of the community,” says school board member Onnie Scheyer, who attended the Glencoe meeting. Scheyer, like the four other board members elected with her last month, has not publicly supported any one option over another.

Some of the new board members say that they are waiting to see the results of a $60,000 survey officials plan to send to all 24,000 households in the district by the end of January. By design, the survey does not ask people to choose but rather to rate what is important to them in the high school experience and to assess each option on its own merits.

And there will be more meetings--one in each of the six elementary districts served by the high school--and if Scheyer has her way, a number of smaller, more informal get-togethers.

“If people know one thing, it would tend to be the cost,” Scheyer says. “I want to start them thinking about other things, like competition, stress, dividing lines, commuting between schools.”

As for reaching the parents of the children who will be affected five or six years from now, that, too, will take time.

“Things have to evolve here,” warns Becky van der Bogert, the superintendent of the Winnetka elementary district. “There’s just years of tradition.”

A version of this article appeared in the December 10, 1997 edition of Education Week as Ahead of the Crowd


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