Linda Carlson (foreground, right) addresses the board as Rashad Singletary (foreground, center) and Max Sakellaris (foreground, left) wait their turns to present. | IGOR STUDENKOV/Contributor

Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to reflect accurately the current state of pricing estimates for OPRF’s Phase 2 capital project. It also corrects the attribution of one quote regarding rehabbing of existing athletic facilities and possible costs.

Correction: The current architectural firm working on the project, FGM Architects, has not yet made a cost estimate on the Phase 2 project to improve the school’s inside athletic facilities. Perkins + Will, a firm which worked initially on the broad Imagine OPRF project, had provided an estimate of $65.3 million.

Additionally, a quote was misattributed in the story. Lynn Kamenitsa, a co-chair of the Imagine OPRF project, should have been quoted as saying rehabbing the current facility would cost tens and tens of millions of dollars, not $10 million.

We regret these errors which were called to our attention by both the high school and a reader.

The accounts students and teachers presented at the March 24 Oak Park and River Forest High School board meeting had a lot of things in common.

Speaker after speaker decried the state of the school’s current athletic facilities, complained about crumbling, leaking ceilings, crammed classrooms, inadequate equipment and cockroaches. They also argued that the dance facilities don’t meet the classes’ current needs, and that non-binary students deserve to have their own dedicated locker room instead of having to settle for a makeshift solution of using the girls’ athletic locker room. That entire wing of the Scoville Avenue campus, they argued, is long overdue for an upgrade, and they called for the board to approve the renovations as soon as possible.

In November 2018, the Imagine OPRF Work Group presented its recommendations to completely rebuild the athletic wing under Phase 2 of the Imagine capital plan, but those proposals weren’t acted on. During the March 24 meeting, the heads of the group and district officials summarized the school’s current needs, echoing many of the issues the staff and faculty raised, and the board broadly agreed to restart the process. But OPRF isn’t expected to have more details and up-to-date cost estimates in place until September – which is when the board will decide whether to proceed with the improvements after all.

The preliminary recommendations called for the district to tear down existing structures east of the field house and south of Door 2, so that they can be replaced with a new four-story structure with a full basement.  It would include a new multicourt gymnasium, multi-purpose rooms that can be used for dancing and classroom instruction, a new 25-yard by 40-yard swimming pool, a new weight room, new locker rooms and changing facilities, new “commons and pre-function spaces” that would include concession areas, and new and larger equipment storage areas. Unlike the current structure, the new building would have elevators, improving accessibility for people with disabilities.

FGM Architects remains in the design phase for the planned project. Earlier in the planning process the architectural firm of Perkins + Will estimated the cost of phase two at $65.3 million.

Betina Dunson-Johnson (foreground) addresses the board. (IGOR STUDENKOV/Contributor)

Senior Ania Sacks was among several students who said that she appreciated her “wonderful teachers and peers” who made every gym class special and invigorating, while making no bones about many issues that detracted from the experience

“About a week ago, my class was playing volleyball, and [the ball] got stuck in one the many ceiling holes,” she said. “One time, we couldn’t swim because the pool was foaming — still not clear why. [Recently], we showed up at the pool for practice and saw a chunk of ceiling floating.”

Sacks also mentioned “gross” showers and that “cockroaches like to swim with us.”

David Andolina, a senior and a varsity athlete, said that finding space to practice is a constant issue, and that it isn’t unusual to see pieces of the ceiling fall when they do practice. And he reflected that, having seen other schools’ facilities, “ours is among the worst.”

 “This certainly doesn’t match the commitment of our PE teachers,” Andolina said.

Senior Jessica Sloan-Cooper, a lacrosse player, reflected that listening to other students comment about the facilities made her realize how much she tended to overlook.

“We’re high-schoolers,” she added. “If something is not going good, gym is proven to de-stress you, and if we can’t even do that, that kind of sucks.”

Dance teacher Betina Dunson-Johnson, one of the several OPRF teachers who complained that they didn’t have enough space for classes, argued that the current structure fails students with mobility issues.

“Doorways are too narrow, steps and staircases are narrow and elevators are nonexistent,” she said “Our students deserve to learn in a better, safer classroom. Every single student, every day.”

Later during the meeting, PE teachers Linda Carlson, Rashad Singletary and Max Sakellaris gave a presentation on the facilities’ conditions that echoed much of what the students said. Carlson gave a specific example of a student “who was very good at wheelchair basketball” who had to reach the third floor to play.

“Daily, two of my students would carry his wheelchair,” she said. “Eventually, a ramp was built there. In no way was it ADA-compliant.”

Carlson got choked up when she talked about the impact the lack of a gender-neutral locker room has on non-binary students’ mental health.

“I can’t tell you the harm, when there are signs that still says girls bathroom,” she said. “It is still not okay that our gender non-confirming students don’t have their designated space. It’s an insult, another micro-aggression. You’re not seen, you’re not welcomed.”

Sakellaris said that outdated facilities hurt students’ ability to learn.

Lynn Kamenitsa and Mike Poirier, co-chairs of the Imagine OPRF work group, echoed those criticisms. Kamenitsa said the current state of the facilities was a product of “50 years of piecemeal, short-term problem-solving”

“This is not anyone’s fault,” she said. “This is just what happens when facilities age and usage and needs change.”

Kamenitsa said rehabbing the existing facilities would cost tens of millions of dollars.

During the ensuing discussion board members agreed to start the work on reviewing and updating the Imagine plan.

“It’s really nice to be addressing a concern that, as far as I can tell, goes and is held by students of all races and ethnicities, that the faculties aren’t up to snuff,” said board member Ralph Martire.

“I’m glad we’re going back to Imagine. I’m glad we’re using that as a foundation,” said board member Fred Arkin. “Obviously, over the last 3 years, there need to be changes, but I’m glad this is getting used as a foundational element.”

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Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Growing Community Media newspapers in 2012, then from 2015...