By Terry Dean
If Dist. 97's April 5 referendum fails, officials say drastic cuts will have to be made to overcome its budget deficit. In the weeks leading up to the vote, Wednesday Journal will look at some of the programs on the reduction list. First up, the Multicultural Department.
District 97's Multicultural Education Department is gearing up for its 31st annual Ethnic Festival in the Village of Oak Park the first Saturday in May. It could be the last.
The department, currently housed at Percy Julian Middle School, 416 S. Ridgeland, is among the reductions proposed by Dist. 97 if the April 5 tax referendum fails. The school board will vote on the reductions, totaling about $5.7 million, this week but those cuts wouldn't take effect until this fall. Programs and staff reductions to the performing arts, language arts and sports, as well as district-wide festivals, are on the chopping block.
Lynn Allen, director of the Multicultural Education Department, said this year's festival will be scaled down to reduce costs. The festival will take place at Julian Middle School, and the annual parade will have a different, and likely shorter, parade route. In past years, Whittier School hosted the event with activities and performances taking place at other locations throughout the district. There also won't be any professional performers this year, another cost reduction. Students, who perform every year, will be the main talent on showcase this time around. Allen estimates an overall 75 percent cost reduction for the 2011 fest.
As for the future of the event and the department she has led, Allen is unsure. The reduction would affect the department's two-and-a-half person staff — the director, an administrative assistant and part-time data clerk — totaling $199,300. The district would explore outsourcing staff to oversee the massive collection of books, artifacts, clothing and other items from various cultures, which are stored at Julian. Allen also teaches and gives presentations in the center and at the other district schools.
"I really don't know," she said of the future. "I really hope people take a look and say, 'Do we really want our school district cut down to the bare bones?'"
Allen noted the center is open to and used by surrounding school districts, including River Forest District 90, and also by people not associated with the schools.
Part of the idea behind creating the department was to promote diversity, not just in the schools but throughout Oak Park, recalled Allen, the department's director since 2003. In 1991, the district expanded the center into a department. Teachers and students use its resource room at Julian, a large space that's part library, part museum.
A classroom lesson on, for instance, American Indian history might entail students wearing traditional Native-American clothing or playing instruments used by certain tribes. Allen also incorporates, and passionately promotes, diversity and cultural understanding through the center — both past and present. She recalled a recent class lesson involving a discussion about Muslims and one student who associated them with terrorists. Allen said that's not uncommon for small children whose views are often shaped by misinformation in the media.
"You can't judge all people in a group by the extremist in that group," she recalled telling the student.
Allen said such education could be incorporated into the district's curriculum but noted that teachers already have a full plate teaching the core subjects. Then again, the Multicultural Department has not been universally supported during its 31 years. During teacher cuts in 2006, some parents opposed those reductions, arguing for shuttering the department in order to spare classroom teachers.
An Oak Park resident and Nashville native, Allen insisted she's not just singling out her department to be spared.
"All of the things on the list are very important. Some may think we're not that important, but I beg to differ," she said. "If we say we're committed to diversity, if we are, then we have to reflect it."