CRYSTAL LAKE – Alice McCoy’s granddaughter was 10 when her 21-year-old brother died from injuries suffered in a car crash.
Ever since, McCoy said, her granddaughter has battled anxiety, depression and panic attacks. On a few occasions, she stopped going to school, but she ultimately returned.
Now McCoy thinks her granddaughter – a sophomore at Community High School District 155’s alternative Haber Oaks Campus – might stop going to school altogether, just as she’s gotten on the right track academically.
“The first year at Haber Oaks was difficult, but this year she has thrived,” McCoy said of her granddaughter, who is earning A’s and B’s.
The district board voted Tuesday night to close Haber Oaks Campus in Cary at the end of the school year. The district expects to save about $70,000 annually by not operating in the Haber Oaks building, assistant superintendent of finance and operations Jeremy Davis said, but it also will spend about $700,000 to renovate Crystal Lake South High School in a corresponding move.
Beginning in August, the 90 to 100 students slated to attend Haber Oaks Campus instead will report to the first floor of South, where the district plans to operate “a school within a school” for them.
Haber Oaks is home to District 155’s therapeutic day program, which provides a self-contained educational setting for special education students with significant emotional and/or behavioral challenges, according to the district. The campus also has a credit recovery program for students who have not progressed toward a high school diploma in the traditional comprehensive high school setting.
The decision to move Haber Oaks’ operations into the first floor of South is based on a $56,750 feasibility study that the district commissioned, which showed that South has the most available space of the district’s four high schools – Cary-Grove, Prairie Ridge, Crystal Lake South and Crystal Lake Central – as the district continues to see declining enrollment in each. Enrollment has steadily dropped over the past five years, from 6,745 during the 2013-14 school year to 6,137 this year.
But parents of Haber Oaks students said the district isn’t paying attention to the kids’ needs, both at Haber Oaks and South.
Dave Komosa’s son began to struggle in eighth grade and ultimately ended up at Haber Oaks after spending some time at South. He’s set to graduate this year.
“Unless you have a son or daughter,” Komosa said to the board, his voice cracking, “and you go to bed every night crying trying to figure out how to get through [the issues], you really don’t understand what it takes. The pressure it puts on a relationship – divorces and stuff that come out of it – it’s really tough. Just know that my son would probably drop out if he had to go back to South again.”
Julie Haislip, a teacher at South Elementary School, has two students at South high school. She urged the board to keep Haber Oaks separate.
“By and large, the populations of both schools were against the move,” Haislip said.
The board also voted Tuesday night to spend about $700,000 on renovations to the first floor of South to accommodate Haber Oaks’ move. Davis said the work includes new office space, upgraded facilities to fit Haber Oaks programming and secure entrances to both sides of the building.
District officials believe there are several positives to be gained by Haber Oaks students at South. They said students will have more options for elective classes, such as culinary arts, and access to a gymnasium, unlike at Haber Oaks.
Seven staff members at South, including Principal Josh Nobilio, previously worked at Haber Oaks. Board member Ron Ludwig is enthusiastic about the staff at South being able to accommodate and understand Haber Oaks students, even though the operation of Haber Oaks will be separate from South.
District 155 director of student services Kim Dahlem said at a previous committee meeting that having the alternative school at South is “a great thing” for the students.
“Change is hard,” Dahlem said, noting that the district has to make sure it communicates and educates Haber Oaks and South parents and students throughout the process.
Most board members said they felt for parents of students who had seen improvements at Haber Oaks Campus, and they wrestled with the decision for a long time, but they ultimately voted unanimously to approve the relocation.
Ludwig said the success of Haber Oaks students comes down to the staff’s work more than the brick-and-mortar building they’re in.
But McCoy said several parents shared her sentiment – that their children might stop going to school because of the change – at a recent meeting with District 155 officials where the closure of Haber Oaks Campus was discussed.
“The Haber Oaks students feel protected and comfortable, and their individual needs are addressed at Haber Oaks,” McCoy said, noting that many Haber Oaks students did not do well at a large high school. “It’s like taking someone who is afraid of heights and putting them on the roof of the Empire State Building.”
District 155 bought Haber Oaks, a former Cary School District 26 administrative building, for about $1.3 million in 2007. The district then paid about $800,000 to gut and renovate it, according to records.
Rachael Lawrence, who has a son attending Haber Oaks, said she isn’t pleased with the plan on behalf of both her son and taxpayers.
“I feel like they’re taking several dozen of the most high-risk, in-need students in the district and displacing them at the taxpayers’ expense,” Lawrence said.
District 155 director of operations Jeff Daurer said at a previous meeting that the Haber Oaks building was professionally appraised at a little more than $1 million.