The first of four strategic planning community focus group sessions took place Monday night at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School, 325 S. Kenilworth.

Another meeting took place on Tuesday at Brooks, and two more are scheduled for tonight and Thursday at Percy Julian Middle School, 420 N. Ridgeland.

The volunteer Community Input Team (CIT), is organizing the focus group sessions, which are open to the public, including those who do not have children attending District 97 schools.

About a dozen people attended the two-hour session Monday night at Brooks’ auditorium. Most of the attendees were Dist. 97 parents, and some staff from various schools, along with residents and former Dist. 97 parents.

The sessions are part of the district’s strategic planning process. The results from the focus groups and online feedback will be part of a preliminary analysis submitted to the Board of Education by the first week of November, in time for the board’s strategic planning retreat, said Jana O’Brien, co-chair of the 20-member CIT, composed of Oak Park residents. A full report is scheduled for the board by Thanksgiving.

Monday’s focus group covered a range of topics, including how parents felt about curriculum at their schools and across the district, and if they felt that they’re tax dollars were being spent effectively.

“We’re paying a lot of taxes but I don’t understand where the money goes,” said Holmes Elementary School parent Michelle Vanderlaan.

Vanderlaan, a new resident of Oak Park, said she was encouraged to hear that the village and other taxing bodies were looking to work more closely together on setting priorities.

“I think everyone needs to sit down a say, ‘OK, here’s all the money we’re taking in and where exactly is it going,'” she said. “District 97 is doing the best they can with the money that District 97 has, but I think there is more money out there that should go to District 97 that they aren’t getting.”

Most of the parents at Monday’s meeting were from Brooks’ feeder schools: Holmes, Lincoln, and Whittier schools. The group was asked about what they liked and didn’t like about their schools, and areas where they thought the district could improve.

Some parents brought up specific issues such as expanded all-day kindergarten throughout the district. The group was also asked what they would like to see the district maintain as it implements its first strategic plan since 1989. Several parents talked about expanded after-school and before-school programs.

O’Brien said she noticed that many of the parents attending Monday night had younger school children.

“That was interesting to see because they’re on the front end of their children’s education, so a long-term, 10-year strategic plan is something of particular interest to them,” said O’Brien, a Julian Middle School and Oak Park and River Forest High School parent.

Among the topics that sparked the most discussion Monday was the amount of time students spend taking tests. The group also felt that the communication from individual building administration and some teachers could improve.

Student achievement and the achievement gap came up various times throughout the discussion, with some in the group saying that the district should focus on how socio-economic factors contribute to the gap.

Wendy Giardina, a Whittier parent, said achievement was one of her main concerns.

“The District is known for having very valuable homes. I want to see this district excel when it comes to education,” she said. “If we’re going to pay high taxes, I want to make sure that every child has an equal playing field.”

Two remaining sessions tonight and Thursday at Julian Middle School are from 7-9 p.m. The online survey is available at the district’s website at


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