Pat Malarski and Becky Ciardullo, both teachers in Forest Park’s public schools, nod in unison when talking about the number of changes they’ve absorbed in the last few years. There’s a new reading curriculum, revamped math lessons, new classroom materials, new teaching strategies, a revised salary structure, a new health insurance program and a completely redrawn concept of how primary and elementary grade levels will be grouped. And there’s more coming.
Ciardullo, co-president of the teachers’ union, and Malarski, the district’s recently named teacher-of-the-year, attended the second annual state of the district address Aug. 19. They heard Superintendent Lou Cavallo touch upon many of those adjustments, and said afterward they agree it has all been for the better.
“It’s been a long time coming,” Malarski said of efforts to standardize the curriculum across the district’s five schools.
Cavallo delivered his remarks during a lightly attended gathering that was originally scheduled for early July. As reported in a preview of the superintendent’s remarks, updates to almost every facet of the district have been instituted since Cavallo was hired in February 2007. Through the lens of meeting the school board’s stated goals for the district, the superintendent displayed his badge as an agent of change.
“We have made some major changes in school District 91 because we needed to,” Cavallo said.
Not all of which were readily accepted.
Of the more radical moves introduced by Cavallo is the reorganization of the district’s elementary schools. As of the start of the school year today, students are grouped by their respective grade levels into one of four buildings. Previously, a student’s address was the determining factor. This change bucked a long-standing tradition in Forest Park and a vocal contingent of parents objected fiercely.
According to Cavallo, five families have informed administrators that because of the restructuring their children will attend school elsewhere.
Among the teaching staff, Ciardullo said her colleagues have been more inclined to accept Cavallo’s changes because teachers have been invited to play a large role in designing what those changes ultimately look like. Malarski, for example, was part of each committee that developed new math and reading benchmarks for students and teachers at each grade level.
Over the last two years, teachers at the middle school played an integral role in adopting a new approach to student discipline that aims to reward good behaviors. That model is expected to be replicated in the elementary and primary classes, though with age-appropriate modifications.
Veteran teachers have also been asked to serve as mentors to new hires, a program intended to help the district retain its recruits as senior staff members retire.
Even the most recent rounds of contract negotiations have had a more congenial feel, according to Ciardullo.
“It has been a very collaborative effort,” she said.