HIGHLAND PARK, IL — Township High School District 113 administrators released a new class schedule for the 2022-23 school year at Highland Park High School amid concerns that the change puts its prestigious fine arts program at risk.
Shifting from a nine-period model to what administrators described as "eight plus one," the schedule released Friday pushes the start time for the first period back 35 minutes to 8:35 a.m., while students opting into "early bird" classes will start at 7:40 a.m.
Instead of being able to opt out of a lunch period and enroll in an extra class instead, all students will have a lunch period. And the total instructional minutes, which had been reduced by about 10 minutes per course every week under the schedule adopted during the COVID-19 pandemic, will be restored to pre-pandemic levels.
Superintendent Bruce Law said administrators are working to unify the schedules at both Deerfield and Highland Park high schools, which have had different bell schedules for the past approximately 15 years, according to a spokesperson.
"As we're working toward common schedules, one thing to keep in mind is that we're trying to work toward a schedule that is best for all students. We're concerned about their social emotional well-being," Law said at Tuesday's board meeting.
"But just want to make sure that the board understands that the best schedule we can come up with for all students may not be the best schedule for every individual student," he said. "This is always that the challenge that were facing."
Principal Debby Finn sought to reassure the community that the school's administration was fully committed to fine arts, applied arts and all elective courses it offers. The current schedule, she said, was adopted before the board decided to resume in-person learning last year.
"Our present schedule was never intended to be permanent," Finn said. "It was always an interim schedule in response to the pandemic."
Finn said a scheduling survey had been shared with students twice and discussed with student committee. Students were asked to rank various core values from most to least important.
"What we heard from students, number one, what they value, was about later start times in school. We hear that, and we agree, that's important," Finn said. "Students also talked about having opportunities to take classes that interest them and at the same time have lunch every day."
The principal said the move to an eight-period schedule incorporates those priorities and meets the needs of a lot of students.
"With that embedded lunch you have eight selections, just like you have in our present schedule, in our nine-period, if you select a lunch. That has not changed," she said. "For a student who opted out of lunch, that plus-one model gives and opportunity to take something during early bird, opening it up for other fine arts or other electives."
More than 1,000 parents, students and alumni have signed an open letter to the school board and administrators asking for assurances that the district has a plan to ensure the continued success of the department.
Signatories include prominent graduates such as actors Gary Sinese and Rachel Brosnahan, a co-creator of "Game of Thrones" and the screenwriter of "Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory" and "The Omen."
"So many famous people, but even more you won't know," Karen Wehner, a Highwood parent who signed the petition, said during the meeting. "Teachers, executives, scientists and entrepreneurs who credit the HPHS Fine Arts Department with teaching them how to stand in front of a crowd, speak their mind, believe in their ideas."
John Mayer, a member of the class of 1974, former chair of the theater department at California State University Stanislaus and the author of a history of the locally founded theater company Steppenwolf, said Highland Park High School's arts program have helped shape American culture going back to screenwriters James and William Goldman in the 1940s.
"If changes to the way students schedule their classes are allowed to detrimentally impact their ability to have full access to arts curriculum, this will do a tremendous disservice to our artistic legacy and can seriously damage the possibilities moving forward," Mayer said. "And in the world we are living in now, the arts are desperately needed."
Critics of the schedule, such as HPHS student Emma Kimbarovsky, said it reduces students' flexibility to explore more subjects, encourages them to take more "early bird" classes and hinders students who are unable to get to school earlier.
"The nine-period schedule allows us to schedule over lunch but the eight-period schedule would not, thereby significantly reducing our choice, flexibility and the amount of elective we can take, which, over time, is a lot of lost opportunities and classes," Kimabrovsky said.
"Early birds are not healthy for teenagers. It leads to more car accidents and health issues," she added. "The CDC states that more than one in three high school students had experienced persistent feelings of sadness or hopelessness, this study was taken in 2019, pre-pandemic."
Denise Bass, a mother of two current HPHS students and one due to start next year, questioned the benefit of the change and the level of involvement by the school's faculty. She told the board it felt like the district was pushing families to pay for extra classes in the summer, driving school and to take fewer electives.
"Summer school should not be expected, private driving school shouldn't be expected, early bird classes shouldn't be expected and not taking all core classes each year shouldn't be expected or encouraged," Bass said. "Please don't continue or create these expectations."
Finn responded to concerns raised by the petition and some of its signatories who spoke during the public comment period of Tuesday's meeting.
"The question about the schedule weakening the fine arts program," she said. "It is not my belief that that is a true statement. The change to the schedule will not weaken, in that I believe students will be able to choose the classes that they want and they need."
According to answers to frequently asked questions provided by the district, about 6.4 percent of HPHS students — 114 or so — currently opt out of lunch. They include students enrolled in AP science, those enrolled in study halls on days without science lab, those studying at the College of Lake County Tech Campus and those with individualized education plans who receive extra support during lunch periods, according to the district.
The District 113 board is due to next meet Feb. 8.
In a message to families Friday accompanying the release of the schedule, Finn acknowledged its rollout had not been ideal.
"I recognize that not finalizing the schedule before counselors began meeting to discuss course selection for next year caused confusion and anxiety for some students and parents," Finn said, "and for that I apologize."