WELCOME: Security measures among the topics the Imagine OPRF committee is studying. | File photos

Ahead of a series of community meetings, the first of which is scheduled on Feb. 27, leaders of Imagine OPRF — the committee established last year to create long-term facilities plan for Oak Park and River Forest — shared their thoughts on the work that the 40-member group has conducted so far. 

During an interview on Feb. 15, the committee’s co-chairs, Lynn Kamenitsa and Mike Poirier, repeatedly pointed out that the group’s guiding philosophy so far has been to focus on needs, not solutions. 

“At the very first meeting, all of us wanted to talk about our solutions and ideas,” said Kamenitsa. “We as a team though, have gotten very disciplined about not talking about solutions. We are talking about what the current issues are and what needs to be solved in a master plan — but not how.”

The amount of work the co-chairs are doing and the frequency of their extended visits to the school is reflected in the ID badges that mark the pair as semi-permanent fixtures and give them the power to enter and leave the high school without having to be processed at the entrance. 

And the badge is well-used. The two retirees each estimate that they probably spend at least 35 to 40 hours a week walking the campus, listening to students and staff, and observing what a massive, aging, but still active, structure sounds like. 

Both of the leaders, however, were quick to displace the attention from them to their team of volunteers, who collectively have amassed untold hours studying how the building’s space affects students’ experiences. 

“We asked students about what spaces work for them, what spaces don’t work for them and the way that facilities impact equity on campus,” Kamenitsa said. “We asked them if the facilities lead to certain groups of students being treated differently, feeling more or less welcome on campus, having different experiences of OPRF? It shows up in very different dimensions.” 

For instance, a series of listening sessions and surveys that polled at least 1,000 students — many of them from extracurricular groups such as the Black Leaders Union, Hip Hop Club and Student Council — found that many students at OPRF desire sunlight, which many classrooms on campus lack. The absence of natural light, studies have shown, affects students’ ability to process information. 

Polling and listening to students also revealed just how deeply, although subtly, space can work to exacerbate inequities. 

Track and field is the largest extracurricular at OPRF and has the highest percentage of students of color, many of whom said that the sport lacks the resources of other, less popular, extracurricular activities — from an indoor track that features irregular corners to a fieldhouse that is too small to accommodate the program’s needs. 

Committee members also found that the high school campus, which underwent its last major renovation in the 1960s, needs to be updated to accommodate a population of special needs students and resources that weren’t imaginable 50 years ago. Ditto for bathrooms and locker rooms sensitive to the needs of LGBTQ students. Ditto for handicapped students. 

Kamenitsa and Poirier said that the committee will hold three public meetings in February, April and May to solicit public feedback ahead of presenting a draft masters facilities plan to the D200 school board possibly in June. The committee could stay in place at least up until next fall. 

The first Imagine OPRF public meeting, where the committee will discuss some conclusions of its findings, is scheduled to take place on Feb. 27, 7 p.m., at OPRF, 201 N. Scoville Ave. Two more meetings, held to discuss possible options, will take place on April 16 and May 21.

CONTACT: michael@austinweeklynews.com 

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