After Rumors, SD 227 Board Members Insist Rich East High School Will Not Close

Shelia Hester-Whorton at Rich South HS
School District 227 board member Shelia Hester-Whorton works to assure members of the public that Rich East High School will not close. (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

Richton Park, IL-(ENEWSPF)- Hundreds sporting Rich East-green filled the Rich South High School cafeteria in Richton Park Wednesday night in response to rumors that Rich East was on the district chopping block. The concerns were prompted by a letter board member Cheryl Coleman sent to her constituents which Coleman insisted was misinterpreted by a member of the press.

“Speaking as a board member, not for the board, because I am not the board’s representative,” Park Forest resident and School District 227 board member Alyssa Hernandez told eNews Park Forest, “We have had no discussion with the board as a whole to close any of the schools. There’s been no research done from the administration of the schools and that’s something that has not been board-directed at all.”

Board member Shelia Hester-Whorton echoed similar sentiments to a table of Park Forest residents, “Park Forest is very important to the Rich Township community. Park Forest children deserve the same opportunity, the same respect. None of our schools are in a position of being closed. Our numbers are down but they’re going to go up again.”

“This is supposed to be a time for community sharing,” Hester-Whorton said, referring to the reason Wednesday’s meeting was called. “Unfortunately, we have to address issues like this,” she said, referring to rumors circulating throughout the community that Rich East High School was under consideration for closing.”

In response to a question from eNews Park Forest, Hester-Whorton said, “Hands down,” Rich East students out-perform students in the district’s other two schools.

Board member Cheryl Coleman, whose letter to her constituents prompted the rumors, told eNews Park Forest that if the district doesn’t study enrollment better and “go with an aggressive recruitment plan, the potential of one of our lowest-enrollment buildings, my fear is that one of them would be closing. That’s what I actually stated. I didn’t say any particular school.”

Coleman said she is not aware of the actual enrollment at each of the district’s school buildings.

Addressing the estimated 300 people at the meeting, many wearing Rich East clothing, Board President Betty Owens said there were rumors that “Rich East High School is going to be closed. I want to assure you that that is a rumor.”

The news was met by loud cheers and applause from members of the public.

“And I want all of the board members to stand up to confirm the fact that we have not discussed closing Rich East, we are not going to discuss closing Rich East, we have no reason to discuss closing Rich East,” Owens said to repeated applause.

Owens then addressed the controversy that brought such a large turnout to the meeting, “Now, one individual board member sent a request for an item to be on the agenda and also went to the media. The media got it and jump to a conclusion that the school with the lowest enrollment was going to be closed. That is absolutely not true. That’s one individual’s fear, and not the board’s fear, nor the administration’s.”

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Rich East green at Rich South
Hundreds attended Wednesday’s meeting wearing Rich East green. (Photo: Gary Kopycinski)

Shelia Hester-Whorton and Alyssa Hernandez also addressed the emotional gathering, wiping tears from their eyes at various points during each other’s remarks.

“There is no way I will allow anything to happen to our community and our children,” Hester-Whorton told the gathering. She said she had received approximately 15 text messages from constituents asking about the possibility of Rich East closing. “Then I started getting telephone calls,” she said.

“I want to apologize to Park Forest for the information that was erroneously given to you all,” Hester-Whorton continued. “I’m going to apologize because we deserve better. Rich Township deserves better. Park Forest is very important to this whole community. How dare anyone give the impression that we’re not good enough, our children aren’t good enough, and that we don’t deserve to stay open?” she said, visibly close to tears.

Board Member Cheryl Coleman, whose letter to her constituents prompted the outcry, spoke next, and she offered no apology. “I was the person, the board member, who requested an item to be added to the agenda for March 20, and that will be at Rich East High School at seven o’clock for the open public session, and 7:30 is the actual board meeting. What I requested is for the enrollment analysis to be done on the entire district.”

Coleman said that when she looked at the numbers on the district’s Annual Statement of Affairs report, “we had 4097 students in our district in 2010. When I looked at the numbers in 2011, we had 4047, give or take one or two [students]. Then, when I requested the current enrollment for 2012, I noticed 3880. I started thinking, if we continue on the trend from 4097 to 3880, and what does next year look like, that’s why I requested an enrollment analysis.”

Coleman said she then shared with the approximate 200 people who supported her the concerns she had about enrollment in the district. She said she shared her fear that the school with the lowest enrollment over time may close, saying she had no idea which school that might be.

Board President Owens rolled her eyes several times as Coleman spoke.

“I want to make it very very clear,” Owens told the crowd after Coleman spoke. “While Ms. Coleman is entitled to her projection, and her thoughts about the matter, and as she meets with her constituents, it’s certainly all right for them to form their opinions, but the district has a plan. We had a demographic study done several years ago and it projected out for several years from now. The enrollment is right on target.” Owens said the projected enrollment for the next school year is 4012.

Board member Alyssa Hernandez, a resident of Park Forest and a 2009 graduate of Rich East High School, made an emotional promise to the gathering that she would do all she could to keep Rich East open. Her remarks were welcomed with loud applause and cheers.

After the public remarks, board member Dr. David E. Morgan shared his frustration with board president Owens, “Anybody that she doesn’t agree with on this board, she’s not going to allow to speak up there,” he said, referring to the board members who made public comments to the public that evening.

Park Forest Mayor John Ostenburg, Village Manager Tom Mick, and trustees Mae Brandon and Gary Kopycinski were also in attendance at the meeting.

(Cheryl Coleman’s letter to her constituents appears below video)

The verbatim text of the letter board member Coleman sent to her constituents appears below (received via email from board member Coleman):

Good Morning All and thanks for the emails and questions. We have over 120 students with greater than 2 F’s in just one building Rich Central, and reported partial numbers from South and East. Hearing complaints from parents in the community with our internal process the following questions were asked on their behalf.

The request was sent to the district on December 30, 2011, followed by an email on January 12, 2012 with all questions attached to be shared at the next working session, asked again during the working session meeting on February 2, 2012. I personally reviewed the video tape on February 10, 2012 to make sure I did not miss the answer given and finally followed up with this set of formal questions as a community member on Tuesday, February 21, 2012 which is what precipitated the article published by SOUTHTOWNSTAR’S that is attached. I will be awaiting answers to those questions during our next business meeting on March 20, 2012 at Rich East H.S. 7:00pm.

Question asked on behalf of the all:

  1. What is the parents role in the academic intervention process?
  2. Are the parents apart of the academic intervention team decision making process for their child?
  3. How will the district determine success of the academic intervention process?
  4. Will the academic intervention process called RTI (Response To Intervention) role from the elementary school to the high school following the child?

While education and learning focus on the questions above for the next board meeting, I will request information on enrollment projections.

In 2010 our enrollment was 4097

In 2011 our enrollment was 4056

Current 2012 enrollment is 3880

Want to discuss the projections for the coming new year and understand if we are reacting to this current years enrollment or making cuts based on what we are seeing the projection to be for next year. We get our $16,601 per child based on the best three months attendance which averages around 90% of our enrollment number. IF WE DO NOT PUT IN A PLAN TO ATTRACT STUDENTS, MY FEAR IS WE MAY LOOK AT CLOSING ONE OF THE LOWEST POPULATED BUILDINGS IF THE ABOVE TREND CONTINUES. Want us to be proactive instead of reactive.

Concerned about our trend over the last three years we need a clear picture painted of the look of the district for next year. I will send the request this week for the next board meeting March 20, 21012 Rich East High School. 7:00pm