Lou Cavallo’s first full-time teaching job was at an alternative school in Bakersfield, Calif., where his students were mostly gang members on probation. In the District 91 office he inherited in July as the new superintendent, Cavallo keeps a photo of those kids as a reminder of what education is all about.
“I had kids that had killed people,” Cavallo said. “It was a school between lock up and back to school. It was an amazing experience because, you know, under that hard shell kids are still kids. I learned without a doubt that all kids can learn and all kids will learn given the right environment. I worked with them in the home. I went into some scary neighborhoods, but I think those kids would have done anything for me and I would have done anything for them.”
It was 20 years ago that Cavallo took that job, but he still relishes the idea that an educator can reach students deemed by many to be unreachable. The K-8 classrooms in Forest Park are a far cry from any jailhouse school program, but Cavallo said those same ideas that all kids are capable of learning still apply.
Cavallo, 46, was born in a little coal mining town in eastern Kentucky and grew up in Jeffersonville, Ind., just across the Ohio River from Louisville.
His mother was a middle school math teacher and his father worked as a financial officer for a company that manufactured ammunition.
The older of two boys, Cavallo developed an interest in science to which he credits his seventh-grade science teacher, Mrs. Peters.
“She turned us on to science and I was hooked,” Cavallo said. “It’s amazing what a great teacher can do.”
He grew up collecting animals and drove his mother crazy with the snakes and frogs he caught in the backyard. Cavallo had a pet boa constrictor until, in a reversal of the normal roles, it was killed by a mouse. He also had a chinchilla.
In high school Cavallo was ranked the 10th best gymnast in Indiana and went on to Indiana University where he majored in biology. He was studying pre-med and medical technology when he transferred to an Indiana University branch near Jeffersonville and began substitute teaching. He was looking for something different to do.
“I didn’t want to work in a lab,” Cavallo said.
While he was subbing, an eighth-grade math teacher had a heart attack and Cavallo was called on to replace the teacher for the last quarter of the school year. In that classroom he discovered his calling.
“I substitute taught and fell in love with it and said this is what I wanted to do,” Cavallo said. “I loved being with the kids and I loved teaching. Every day was different. I just really enjoyed working with the kids. I knew then that’s what I wanted to do.”
So he switched his major to secondary education and spent two more years taking the necessary courses. When he finally graduated from college at age 25, his wife, then a special education teacher, took a job in Bakersfield and Cavallo got hired at the alternative school. Within four months he was a lead teacher.
The Cavallos stayed in California for four years but when their son Christopher was born they decided to return to their native Indiana to be closer to family.
He taught eighth-grade science for a year in Crawfordville, Ind., and then taught seventh-grade science for five years in Lafayette, Ind.
He loved it and was good at it. In 1993 he was named teacher of the year in his school district and was a Golden Apple finalist.
“Science is the best subject in the world to teach,” Cavallo said. “There are so many engaging, hands-on kinds of activities you can do with the kids. I was a pretty good teacher, had a lot of kids who went into science fields.”
Three times he took groups of students to Costa Rica to view and study the tropical rain forest.
Although he loved teaching, his superintendent encouraged Cavallo to move into administration. He finally did so taking a job as an assistant principal at a high school in Lafayette. It was not an easy decision.
“The only reason I did it was for those very arguments everybody always makes-you can impact education on a larger scale,” Cavallo said. “I wanted to be the kind of administrator that has high standards. I want all teachers to be good teachers. I didn’t want to settle for mediocrity.”
But he missed teaching. In his first year as an administrator he abandoned his desk one afternoon to join a physics class firing off rockets on the front lawn of the school.
Two years later he became a middle school principal, initially on an interim basis when the new principal at the school was arrested for drunk driving the day before school started.
Cavallo’s former superintendent, Richard Wood, credited Cavallo with playing a large role in the district’s switch to a middle school model rather than a junior high setting.
After five years as a middle school principal Cavallo moved his family to the Chicago area in 2003 where he spent a year working with the University of Illinois at Chicago. But he missed the public school environment and took a job as the assistant superintendent for middle and secondary education at Valley View School District 365, a district with some 18,000 students that covers Romeoville and fast growing Bolingbrook.
“Lou is as good of a school leader as I’ve ever worked with and I’ve been a superintendent for 27 years,” Valley View Superintendent Philip Schoffstall said. “He is intelligent. He is articulate. He is personable. He is one who engenders respect from those he works with. We were all sorry to see him go. He is just an all around good guy and outstanding school leader.”
At Valley View, Cavallo spent a lot of time working to narrow the achievement gap between white and minority students, an important issue facing District 91. He significantly increased the number of minority students meeting state standards in math and reading by focusing on early intervention, monitoring progress, and changing teaching styles when necessary. In Forest Park, teachers spent the summer months getting the basics of a new approach to the curriculum that Cavallo is optimistic will bolster test scores.
“It’s all about early intervention,” Cavallo said. “We made some significant gains. Teaching the way kids learn best, not necessarily the way you teach best. We need to do whatever it takes to help kids be successful.”
Though Forest Park is traditionally one of the stronger feeder districts to the high school system, Cavallo said the growing achievement gap between white and minority students must be addressed.
“My primary focus is improving the achievement gap,” Cavallo said. “This is by no means a district in trouble. We’re pretty good, but I want to move from good to great.”
In California, Cavallo said he learned that a color blind approach is not the way to go.
“I learned that seeing everyone for who they are is the right approach,” Cavallo said. “I don’t see kids as the same with the same kind of values. Every kid is an individual.
“A lot of times people say, ‘I’m color blind. I don’t see color.’ You have to see color and you have to understand that person’s perspective. I learned that very clearly from my kids. I think they taught me more than I taught them out there.”
Cavallo said he intends to hire more black and Hispanic teachers in Forest Park. It’s important that the staff in the classroom reflect the population of students in the classroom. In Forest Park, 93 percent of the teachers are white, whereas 60 percent of the students are black or Hispanic. Roughly 27 percent of the students are white.