By Terry Dean
Oak Park's elementary school district is reviewing its policy concerning who can visit classrooms and under what circumstances. But those changes have caused angst among some parents who fear that the new guidelines are too restrictive.
The buzz surrounding District 97's Policy 9150 has come mostly from special education parents, some of whom routinely monitor their children's' classrooms or who use a specialist they've hired to do so.
The policy review is set for school board action on April 12. A vote was originally scheduled for March 22 but was tabled due to parents' concerns.
Supt. Albert Roberts told Wednesday Journal the policy has since been revised through the board's policy committee and with parents' concerns taken into account. Roberts stressed that parents and other visitors are welcome in the buildings but that the policy focuses on kids' safety and their instruction time not being disrupted.
Kimberly Werner, an executive committee member with Supported Education Association (SEA), an Oak Park and River Forest advocacy group for special education parents, said her organization has concerns about the policy.
State and federal law, she said, protects parents' rights to observe classrooms, but the policy makes no reference or provides information about such laws. Werner said that information needs to be in the policy. Werner added that the policy was not clear concerning visitation procedures.
"It says a parent has to submit a request but it doesn't say if the parent should expect an answer, and it doesn't say if parents can expect a response in 24 hours or any time," she said. "And if a parent or their representative is denied, there's nothing in the policy that says that a reason would be given as to why."
The parents also take issue with who will actually approve a visit.
According to the policy, all classroom visits will be "coordinated through the building principal, his/her designee or teacher at least one day in advance."
Currently, a parent can schedule a visit through the teacher only. But having to go through multiple people troubles parent Christina Blakey. Blakey has three children enrolled in Dist. 97, including one special needs child. She said the current process is still somewhat restrictive but mostly works well. But involving more people in the scheduling process can become cumbersome, said Blakey.
"The more people involved in scheduling, the trickier it gets for the parents," she said.
But Roberts stressed that a principal will only be notified about classroom visits and that arrangements can still be made directly with a teacher. Roberts also argued that having a principal know who's coming in and out of the buildings will actually make things run more smoothly for parents.
Some families, including Blakey and her husband, hire an educational specialist to monitor their children's classroom. Blakey said that person is not monitoring the teacher or other students, but her child's classroom experience. Those visits, for instance, help assess how her son interacts with his classroom environment, she said.
Such an assessment for her son usually takes a couple of hours in his different classrooms. Blakey said the policy states that visits should not exceed 40 minutes or the duration of a classroom period. The policy goes on to state that any exceptions should be approved by the principal or his/her designee.
"Forty minutes is not enough time," she said. "A proper evaluation should take at least two hours to see what a child is doing in more than one class."
Roberts noted that some parents have had difficultly in the past regarding classroom visits. He said the policy was being revised at this time with the right intentions.
"There was some fear that this policy would not allow people in. The policy committee never had such conversations," Roberts said. "Our intent was right but perhaps misunderstood by some parents. We're trying to make sure this policy meets the needs of our public but also making sure that kids are safe and instructional time is not disruptive."