Forest Park’s District 91 schools moved forward in the recently completed school year, and the future bodes well too, according to Superintendent Lou Cavallo, who recently spoke with the Forest Park Review about the district’s accomplishments, as well as past, present and future challenges.

“All in all, we’re making great strides,” said Cavallo.

Those strides include a slight jump in enrollment; better standardized test scores; sustained staff levels district-wide; healthy finances; and a three-year contract extension for Cavallo, which, he said, will increase his salary to $188,349. These are some of the achievements Cavallo pointed to in a newsletter recently mailed to parents and in a recent interview.

The newsletter also identifies some of D91’s challenges: Cook County is late on property tax payments and the State of Illinois owes the district $228,206. Nonetheless, the Illinois State Board of Education recently recognized D91’s financial health by placing it high on a list of financially sound districts statewide. 

D91 revamped its curriculum last year, Cavallo said, to bring it in line with federal standards adopted by the state in 2010.  The Common Core Standards, as they’re called, are, essentially, Math and English Language Arts benchmarks that K-12 students around the country need to meet in order to be adequately prepared for college, according to the initiative’s website. The standards are not mandated – states can choose to adopt them – but they carry the incentive of receiving federal funding from programs such as Race to the Top for high-performing states and districts.

As Cavallo noted, the district is also teaching and testing its kids based on the Illinois Standard Achievement Tests (ISATs), which, he said, differ from the Common Core Standards Initiative.

“While we’re aligning with Common Core Standards, we’re also being tested on ISBE [Illinois State Board of Education] standards,” Cavallo said. “It’s awkward.”

But D91, unlike some other districts statewide, made the “proactive” decision, he said, to conform its curriculum in 2010 (even though it had already changed it for the coming school year) in order to be in line with the Common Core Standards.

Up-to-date district information was unavailable as of deadline on Tuesday. Because ISBE is a year behind, ISAT scores are only available for ’09-’10, and enrollment information, will be available on the ISBE website later this year.

The district’s website, meanwhile, is almost two years behind in posting ISBE’s report card, which chronicles the aforementioned information. The most recent card on ISBE’s site is for the ’08-’09 school year. D91’s site has the ’07-’08 year. ISBE will soon be posting data for ’09-’10. The superintendent said the site is undergoing construction and has long said D91 could improve its communication with the public.

D91 also does not make clearly visible on its website the salaries of its administrators – state law requires districts to make this information public. Cavallo also said the website will be updated.

Cavallo points to some of the missing data in his newsletter, referencing some of D91’s accomplishments. He notes that 83 percent of students at Grant White Elementary met or exceeded ISAT standards in ’09-’10, a 10-percentage-point improvement from the previous year.

 In “A Message from D91 Superintendent Dr. Cavallo,” he notes that enrollment at schools jumped from 944 in 2009 to 956 in 2011 and mentions that this dispels the theory that families would leave the district in greater numbers following a 2008 district decision to divide schools into two K-2 schools and two grade 3-5 schools, one each on both the north and south ends of town.

The newsletter also notes that staff costs were kept in check – the number of teachers fell from 101 in 2009 to 99 presently.

In 2009, the district also instituted Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports, which Cavallo said led to a 40 percent reduction in “negative behavioral infractions” since the program was implemented, citing the change in the number of disciplinary trips kids have made to the office, as an example.

Cavallo, who is entering his fourth year as superintendent and will earn a 3.5 percent pay hike in 2012, said he is proud of the changes the district has undergone since he has been there and is confident that it is heading in the right direction. 

“We’re moving from good to great,” he said.