The New Trier School Board released the results of its recent community survey Tuesday night, and the analysis offered few surprises.
Of the 23,581 households surveyed, 4,602, roughly 20 percent, returned the questionnaire. School officials noted that the figure was a high number of responses. Meanwhile survey-takers almost universally reported that New Trier High School offers an excellent education, in the top percentiles of public education. But while a top priority was placed on retaining and recruiting high-quality teachers and offering a top-notch curriculum, few of those surveyed saw a connection between new facilities and continued excellence.
“The community's focus is less on bricks and mortar,” said John Gatta, a statistician from ECRA, the Rosemont-based research group hired by the board to conduct the study. ECRA is paid $60,000 annually by the district to conduct educational surveys throughout the year.
Seventy-four percent of those surveyed put a high priority on high-quality teachers, while only 32 percent stressed facilities.
If anything was surprising from the study, opposition to a remodeled Winnetka campus was highest for those who were most familiar with the current facility. The board conceived of the study after voters rejected a $174 million levy for a major remodel and renovation of the Winnetka campus in February 2010.
ECRA conducted the community survey in December and January to help the board determine where to take the district after that bond levy was soundly defeated by a margin of 62 to 38.
Only one-third of respondents said they felt they had a voice on the current school board, while the remainder reported a disconnect from its decisions. “The community does not feel as represented as they would like by the board,” Gatta said.
“I can't really say I was surpised by the results,” said newly elected board member Patrick O'Donoghue, who ran a campaign against the traditional caucus slate. “I was elected along those lines. People were looking for something different.”
Gatta said if new facilties are indeed needed, the district may be a victim of its own success. Since New Trier has a great reputation for excellence, there is a perception that change is not needed.
The longer someone had lived in New Trier Township, the less likely they would support the overhaul envisioned in the plan. Newcomers were much more supportive.
“There needs to be an ongoing process with a shared vision of our district leadership and our citizens or we're not going to get anywhere,” said board member Al Dolinko.
Where a resident lived also had a big impact on whether they supported the facilities plan. Wilmette residents were the most supportive, with residents in Winnetka and Northfield much more likely to oppose the plan. Glencoe residents were split almost evenly.
As expected, residents with children at New Trier or in grade school were supportive of the levy, while the most supportive group were the people who both live in the district and work in the school. There was almost no correlation between graduates of New Trier and support for the expansion.
“I think there was some good information that will help the board,” said Lori Goldstein, another new board member. “I think we need to hear more from the community. We need to have a two-way conversation.”
“It's surprising how much hasn't changed in this district since I graduated in 1975,” said new board member Peter Fischer, who ran on the caucus slate. He said that while the academic quality of New Trier was likely higher than when he attended the high school, he was concerned about a nagging problem the district faces.
If academic quality earned an A score by the vast majority of survey-takers, the actual experience of attending New Trier scored closer to a B-. The survey revealed an ongoing perception that New Trier focuses on giving every opportunity to the high-achieving students at the expense of the average or low-achieving pupils.
“No parent wants their child to feel lost or unimportant,” Fischer said.