Using a standing list of goals as his reference, Superintendent Lou Cavallo said the recently ended school year was a success overall. But of significance, according to the superintendent, is District 91’s financial standing in a recession and the decreasing tendency of community members to see the middle school as a haven of bad behavior and lawlessness.
Cavallo planned to relay his thoughts on these subjects and others Thursday during his second annual state of the district address. But he canceled his scheduled July 2 presentation because only a handful of community leaders and local stakeholders said they would attend the address. Such a response to the school district’s invitation isn’t necessarily indicative of an indifferent attitude toward the K-8 system, said Cavallo, but rather a likely result of planning for the holiday weekend.
School board members will be asked this summer whether the presentation should be rescheduled, but Cavallo agreed to discuss with the Review those issues that were of most significance in the 2009-10 school year.
Behavioral and academic concerns have plagued Forest Park Middle School for years, and Cavallo said the perception of problems – at the least – is impossible to ignore.
“It’s all I heard when I got here,” Cavallo said of middle school laments. “It’s all I heard before I got here.”
However, a new method of discipline has brought consistency into the classrooms, and teachers and students alike have said the changes were sorely needed. Principal Karen Bukowski has reported to school board members and district administrators that after two years of developing and instituting the program, the number of behavioral issues has dropped dramatically. The data aren’t entirely reliable at this point because the school had never tracked behavioral problems with as much detail, Bukowski has said, but there is clearly a positive trend developing.
Generally, said Cavallo, he hears fewer negative remarks from parents about the middle school and has heard plenty of positive comments from teachers there. Though this evidence of change is largely anecdotal, Cavallo has maintained that many of the concerns regarding the middle school are not based in fact. That the public’s perception appears to be shifting is significant, he said.
“I would say, yes, I’m hearing far less,” Cavallo said, referring to negative feedback.
Also of note in the last year is District 91’s ability to maintain – and even grow – its fund balances despite an almost flat Consumer Price Index. That stability in the ledger should allow the schools to weather an unexpected and costly repair this summer to the middle school gymnasium.
The board also recently inked a new contract with its teachers’ union that avoids applying a flat percentage increase to the salary schedule and instead boosts pay for incoming teachers. According to Cavallo, there’s a dearth of young faculty in District 91. This could prove problematic as older teachers retire, so it’s a priority for administrators to bolster recruiting efforts.
“We needed to get our starting salaries where they need to be,” Cavallo said. “That was something I really have to commend the teachers for: looking at how we can improve the district.”
Administrators were also able to secure a health insurance program that limited the increase in premiums to 0.4 percent. District 91 was facing an 8 percent spike in its premiums.
Of course, the most visible issue confronted in the last year dealt with declining enrollment and board members voted unanimously to shuffle elementary students using a new set of attendance boundaries. Beginning in the fall, students will be grouped into buildings by grade level rather than neighborhood. Concerns over student performance, transportation, race and classroom continuity were debated in a series of publicly held forums, on the district’s Web site and at school board meetings.
Though not everyone was pleased with the changes, Cavallo said that process helped the district meet many of its goals for the year.
“Good or bad, there was a lot of communication,” Cavallo said. “Our whole community came out to talk about the school. We listened and changed things along the way.”