Fall Fest remains big hit for District 68 community
Old Orchard Junior High School sixth grader Jimmy Bauman plays a carnival game Sept. 12 at the district's annual Fall Fest, a welcome-back-to-school event. | Curtis Lehmkuhl~Sun-Times Media
Updated: October 21, 2012 1:17PM
SKOKIE — Neither the calendar or the weather Sept. 12 suggested that fall was in the air at Old Orchard Junior High School.
But why quibble with the name of Skokie School District 68’s annual back-to-school event — “Fall Fest” — when it’s so popular and has carried on with such success?
“It’s been pretty busy here,” said Stenson School Principal Sue O’Neill, who was shoveling out free cotton candy, working right beside her boss, Superintendent Frances McTague.
“I think it gives students and families a chance to see teachers (and administrators) in a new light,” O’Neill said.
Fall Fest began in 1999 as a celebration of the school district’s centennial. Initially planned as a one-time event by the District 68 Board of Education, Fall Fest soon emerged as a school district staple early in the academic year.
Most of the time, the weather has cooperated, district officials say. Only once in the festival’s dozen or so years has it had to be held indoors.
“The kids talk about it and get excited as it gets closer,” O’Neill said. “That’s all the kids talk about when the day comes.”
Fall Fest, held near the track outside the district’s only junior high school, includes games and prizes, food such as the free cotton candy shoveled out by the district’s top administrators, and even some fast food for sale. The district is one of Skokie’s largest, with three elementary schools and a junior high school, and Fall Fest is one of the only times students from all of them gather in one social setting.
Hundreds Sept. 12 were dancing around Old Orchard’s blacktop on the clear and steamy afternoon, moving from one food or game booth to another, lugging around prizes they had collected for knocking down clowns or making accurate tosses.
Stenson School fourth-grader JD Doyle stood in line, waiting to play a game that he hoped would win him a coveted prize.
“That’s what I like best,” Doyle said. “The games and the prizes.”
His father, Jim Doyle, said Fall Fest has become a community event that his four children enjoy every year.
“It’s something every year that they look forward to,” Doyle said. “They know this will be happening when they go back to school.”
Almost all faculty members last week wore shirts with college names on them — part of the district’s commitment to the No Excuses University Network. The No Excuses University Network brings a college culture to schoolchildren well before it’s time for students to head off to post-high school education.
A testament to the popularity of Fall Fest may have come in recent years when there was discussion about holding Fall Fest every other year — in part to save money and also to keep it fresh.
During a year when the district hired additional staff, administrators raised certain possible cuts as an option, and scaling back Fall Fest was one.
But not for long.
The School Board ruled out changes to Fall Fest pretty quickly. McTague last week said that any idea to cut back on Fall Fest, which costs District 68 about $4,000 a year, is off the table — at least for now.
“Everyone wants Fall Fest,” McTague said.
One of the nicest features of Fall Fest is how students grow older with it. Many begin in the district practically as tots when they enjoy their first fest. When they reach junior high school, they become volunteers at the event.
That was true for seventh-grader Murtaza Ukani, 12, who was working two games last week during the late afternoon festival.
“I really like volunteering because you feel part of something bigger,” Ukani said. “It was fun when I younger but it’s also fun now.”
If there is any downside to Fall Fest, it’s the disappointment once it ends. Come the next day, it’s time for learning again.
When asked about this, a fourth-grader from Devonshire School wanted little to do with such a thought. She was busy enjoying a glorious day as she waited her turn to try to knock over some clowns and win a prize.
Reading, writing and ‘rithmetic could wait until tomorrow.