Rich East High

Closing a high school brings about challenges for Illinois district

Feb. 3, 2020
Rich Township High School District will go from 3 to 2 high schools after Rich East High in Park Forest, Ill., closes later this year.

Rich Township (Ill.) High School District 227 in Chicago’s south suburbs faces many challenges as it prepares to reorganize about 2,900 students and 250 teachers at two campuses instead of three when it shutters Rich East High School in Park Forest later this year.

The Southtown Economist reports that the district will consolidate athletic teams and extracurricular offerings into combined district-wide programs. It plans to raise property taxes and pour $105 million into facility improvements at the remaining two schools, Rich Central in Olympia Fields and Rich South in Richton Park.

Many in the community were upset by the decision to close Rich East and are distrustful of board members and administrators responsible for the decision

"The board has had to make an incredibly difficult decision," Superintendent Johnnie Thomas says. The decision to close Rich East after 68 years was necessary, he says, because of declining enrollment. Student numbers have fallen nearly 30%—to 2,938 in 2019 from 4,167 in 2009. Enrollment is projected to decline by several hundred more students over the next several years.

The district plans to adopt a flexible-schedule policy that will give students more say in how they spend their time at school, Thomas says. A lack of student engagement is a concern in the district, where the chronic truancy rate is 37%.

"In other places where they have done something like this attendance rates have gone up dramatically," he says. "(Students) don't feel like this is a place they have to be, but they feel that this is a place that cares about them and where they are with their learning."

Combining sports programs from the different schools into single, districtwide teams will have a positive effect, he says. The varsity football team at Rich South, for example, was made up of mostly freshmen and sophomores.

"They were physically outmatched," Thomas said. "This allows us to create more depth."

District 227, serving a population that is predominantly low-income, spends $21,251 per pupil compared with a statewide average of $13,764.

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