This past week, River Forest District 90 Superintendent Ed Condon called for a return to some in-person instruction, beginning Dec. 14, and new plans for more time in the classroom beginning after the holidays. Most of these D90 K-8th grade children haven’t seen the inside of a school since they shuttered in mid-March, and there’s unrest in the community because surrounding districts have found one way or another for some in-person instruction. 

The sudden turnabout came only after one of the largest community campaigns in at least a decade: over 500 signatures supporting an online petition. It called for clear accountability from the board on whether children return to in-person instruction and asked, at their Dec. 14 meeting, for a vote now regarding a hybrid plan set to begin Jan. 19. 

A Facebook group organizing return-to-school support popped up and went from zero to nearly 200 River Forest members in a few days. There was a coordinated email campaign targeting the superintendent and board President Rich Moore. A green-ribbon effort was assembled by upcoming D90 candidate Scott Hall and several parents organized a peaceful car rally, planned for the Dec. 14 board meeting. 

Reports of similar community pressure on local districts has been reported across the country. The silence from this newspaper was deafening.

Hay wagon is a metaphor that comes to mind describing the state of our local schools, and I’ve been following very close for years. I grew up in the country, where agriculture was the primary industry. At harvest time, whether it was another cutting of hay, trucks loaded with onions or a tractor towing a few tons of grapes, farmers pull their crops to market. Have you ever been behind a hay wagon, loaded down, being pulled toward its destination? Plenty of horsepower pulling the load, and a system of connected parts that each have some say in the successful delivery of goods. These days, I feel like many are just figuring out their place in this metaphor. 

COVID taught many of us there is competition for who is steering the education wagon. One hand on the wheel are parent groups, who see one direction for the education of their children and work at pulling all others to that end. This influence sneaks into the system and plays out in things like a corrupt caucus, a school board that quietly yet unanimously implements “a fundamental change in instructional philosophy,” or a cancel culture rolling over diversity of thought. 

Systems where individuals can gain power inevitably are exploited, and when this goes unnoticed, it risks spoiling the whole harvest, before it ever reaches the market. The real farmer is smart though, she keeps a gentle grip that steadies the wheel. She knows, on the vine or in the tree, not all fruit ripens at one time. Like teachers to their students, the farmers’ work plans account for unevenness and a natural variation. When she’s done, the fruit reflects her work and the power of the sun.

Returning to in-person instruction taught us more about another hand on the wheel: the teachers union. It’s connected stiffly to the wagon’s hitch and the front wheels. Like teachers, the front wheels have little choice but to follow the pulling. When the crop is light or the wagon is over loose gravel, sudden changes in direction don’t upset the load. It gently rocks and finds its center again. In heavy years, when the bounty is large and the road to market is paved with intention, the same sudden change can cause the front wheels to slip. You must listen close or be a teacher yourself to hear it. The friction between front wheels and an abrupt new direction produces a rubbery chirp that is easily lost in all the noise coming from up front. The experienced farmer listens for the chirp and slows the whole system to protect the load. After all, if a wheel went out or left the wagon on its own volition, the whole load might topple over. 

The harvested crop atop the wagon, making a once-in-a-lifetime journey to market, are children and families served by the public schools. Farmers will center their load on the wagon for stability; strap it down or hold it all in with barriers. It’s amazing, the weight of the produce on top may be an order of magnitude greater than the structural weight of the wagon. Some wagons look as though they’ll collapse under the pressure, and a few broken beyond repair are found in the hedgerow. Still, this load is pulled down the road, arching over bumps and rocking left and right as it heads around the bend. 

There’s seasonality to farm work too. The off-season involves readying equipment for work next year so there’s trust in the whole system. The farmer sees component parts as essential to a successful delivery. 

Sadly, it happened a few times while I was growing up. Something in the system unexpectedly failed at exactly the wrong time. It’s particularly lethal when the wagon is headed downhill. At first the driver fights the wheel, the weight of the load, and tries to stay the course, protecting the intention and the valuable harvest. Time has different value in crisis though. Gravity is doing the pulling now, speeds are increasing, and in that few seconds fear overrides the possibility of jumping to safety. Several times I’ve driven one steep hill where it happened. In reaching the bend I can’t help but wonder how it could have been different for them. 

We jumped onto the school wagon when we moved to River Forest, as many do. It wasn’t the Farmer’s Almanac, but there was a history of high performance, mostly flat ground, a balance of power and very few squeaky wheels. We were content to be part of the load. We believed an abundant past was the best predictor of a vigorous future. 

Now, reports show something in the system broke a few years back. The tires have low pressure, we’re being pulled in a different direction, and with COVID we’re gaining downhill speed. Some have already chosen to jump. It’s fascinating to me that community journalism isn’t on top of this, digging into the facts and holding people accountable. 

Today the email headline for River Forest was about leaf blowers. Last week, news the village wouldn’t raise taxes to assist in COVID relief occurred on page five. An old wagon metaphor is what you find back here, but what do you expect on the front page? 

At home we teach that everyone makes mistakes, it’s what you do next that really matters. We’ll see if this paper begins to dig into explanations for the sudden school decline that began in River Forest a few years back. 

If you saw yourself in my metaphor, do you feel like you’re along for the ride, trying to take the wheel, or just own another farm in town? Regardless, we need to work together on this little plot of land so it produces a great crop. Let’s go over our equipment, find the weak links, worn tires and set ourselves up and advocate for children and the next season of growing.

Steve Lefko is a 2010 transplant to River Forest, husband and father, and a former corporate scientist who has traded up for the role of Director of Character Development, Lefko Inc.

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