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With a unanimous vote and handshakes all around, the District 91 Board of Education voted to hire Lou Cavallo as the new superintendent of the K-8 school system.

Cavallo is wrapping up his tenure as assistant superintendent at Valley View Public Schools in southwest suburban Romeoville. That district, located some 35 miles outside Chicago, is significantly larger than Forest Park’s District 91, and has a student population of roughly 18,000. According to the Valley View School District 365U Web site, the district is one of the largest employers in Will County with more than 2,000 full-time staff in 20 different facilities.

By comparison, District 91 has roughly 1,080 students in five schools, according to a 2005 Illinois District Report Card.

Cavallo attended the Feb. 8 board meeting with his wife following a day of site visits to the district’s facilities. He praised board members and district staff for building a cooperative atmosphere.

“I’ve heard so many great things tonight and saw so many great things today,” Cavallo said following the vote. “These things don’t happen by accident.”

Cavallo will take over as the district’s lead administrator in July once Superintendent Randolph Tinder’s retirement takes effect. Though his retirement has been discussed for months, Tinder only formally submitted his letter of resignation at Thursday’s meeting.

“It’s been my pleasure for the last six and a half years,” Tinder said.

Tinder is retiring from education, but he will step into the presidency of the Illinois Association of School Administrators later this year. In a written statement to the board, Tinder expressed gratitude for being given the flexibility to work with the IASA while serving out the remainder of his contract with District 91.

Since he joined the district in July 2000, Tinder said the board worked well through several significant issues to “set the table” for success.

“We have experienced tremendous staff turnover due to retirement, building additions to all four elementary schools, a significant investment in technology as a tool to assist in teaching and learning, and a re-establishment of the strong financial foundation that supports the district in its efforts,” Tinder said in his resignation letter.

Cavallo was hired after a months long search process that included several public meetings intended to establish a profile of the ideal candidate. Interviews with five applicants were conducted last month, and longtime board member Steve Johnsen said Cavallo was the clear favorite.

“We interviewed many good candidates but there was an ‘it’ that I was looking for,” Johnsen said. “I saw that ‘it’ in Dr. Cavallo.”

Prior to serving as an assistant superintendent in District 365U, Cavallo was a middle school principal and said he has worked as a consultant with various middle schools. Through his career, Cavallo said he’s focused on closing the achievement gap between various student subgroups that often turns up on standardized tests. It is these skills in particular, Cavallo said, that may be immediately beneficial to District 91.

“I know there’s a community perception that that’s where the problems are,” Cavallo said of Forest Park’s middle school. “I think that’s more perception than anything, but I’m more than willing to roll up my sleeves.”

Some universal issues for middle school students, Cavallo said, are the switch from a familiar environment to an unfamiliar one, puberty and a more complicated social structure. For these reasons, middle school often represents a tumultuous period for adolescents, Cavallo said.

According to a recent round of standardized test results, District 91 is beginning to close the performance gap between white and minority students at the middle school level. Beth Kovacic, the district’s testing coordinator, reported that in 2006, 90 percent of white eighth-graders met or exceeded achievement standards in math. Only 52 percent of black eighth-graders and 50 percent of Hispanic eighth-graders scored as well.

However, those figures are up markedly from 2004 when only 21 percent of black eighth-graders met achievement standards in math and 40 percent of Hispanic students met the mark. During 2004, roughly 78 percent of white eighth-graders met or exceeded performance standards.

Though the current District 91 Board of Education appeared enthusiastic about Cavallo’s hire, the group is facing an election in April. Regardless of any changes in the board’s makeup, Cavallo said the most important thing is maintaining a commitment to common goals.

“That main thing is that everyone has the same goal in mind and that is to determine what’s best for the students,” Cavallo said.

In the months leading up to his official start date on July 1, Cavallo said he will attend each board meeting and make an effort to meet with members of the school community.