It’s the last day of school before winter break at Forest Park’s Field-Stevenson intermediate school, and the excitement is palpable. Principal Bob Giovannoni – or “Mr. G” as he’s called – sits at his desk.
Igor, the tan hammerhead shark he caught in Florida 40 years ago during his first year of teaching, presides from the wall. “It’s too ugly to keep at home, so I keep it here,” says Mr. G. The shark wears a Santa hat. He is the mascot of the school.
After 19 years at District 91, 12 of them as principal of Field-Stevenson, Mr. G is retiring this spring. Whether he’s making lasagna for his staff holiday party or doling out “shark bite” coupons to children who’ve behaved well, Mr. G is a fixture in the school.
“I’m so proud of the teachers. I want to say thank you for the little things that are so important. Almost all the teachers here I hired over the 12 years. They don’t leave. I’ve watched them grow. They know these kids,” he says.
Looking back over almost two decades at District 91, starting first as principal of Betsy Ross in 1992, then at Field-Stevenson, 925 Beloit Ave., in 1998, Mr. G says the district has had its challenges: measuring up to federally mandated high-stakes testing, a-higher-than- average percentage of low-income children, a switch to a grade-center model, and anti-teacher sentiment in recent politics.
But Forest Park’s small size and tight community make the district strong, he says. Average class sizes in D91 are small: 18 to 25 children. “Some districts would give their left lung to be able to do that,” he says.
“We’re lucky to be able to address the needs of Forest Park. It’s a small district, people know each other,” he says. “I remember my first all-school picnic at the park district in 1993. I thought it would be chaos. But there were no incidents; everyone had a great time and we left that park cleaner than we found it.”
He remembers another trip to the park, the day after the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks when 50 school districts around the county got false bomb threats. “We had our emergency procedures in place.” The children were taken to the park where, “we had to wait for the county to come with their bomb-sniffing K-9 units because 50 other schools got bomb threats too.” That night Mr. G had to decide whether to cancel the previously scheduled school Open House, but he decided to go ahead. “If we cancelled it, the terrorists would have won,” he says. Open House attendees filled two water cooler bottles full of change for the Red Cross.
Mr. G began his education career teaching social studies and math to middle-schoolers in Catholic school. He became a Catholic school principal and then moved to the public schools. Looking back over 40 years, he’s seen children become more “demanding”Ð in a good way. “They want to ask questions. They are gaining the understanding that ‘I can ask a question.'” He also says students are more generous than in the past, pointing out that this holiday Field-Stevenson kids brought in 300 cans for the Forest Park Food Pantry, when they were asked for 200. The staff and teachers also generously donated $1,000 he adds. He also credits the new Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS systems), introduced in 2007, for changing school culture. When students from the past drop by his office and thank him, it’s “always rewarding,” he says.
Over almost two decades at D91, Mr. G says he’s seen the district become “more diverse” and that children lead the way in getting along with people from different racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. “The diversity helps them recognize the strengths of other kids. How do you test [the experience of] the kids sitting together in the cafeteria? This is the real world they’re living in, and it’s a fantastic learning experience.”
According to the Illinois School Report Card web site, Field-Stevenson’s student body is almost 50 percent African American, 24.3 percent Hispanic, 17 percent white and 5.8 percent Asian. Low-income students comprise 50.3 percent of the school and 18.5 percent have an Individual Education Plan (IEP).
Ten of Mr. G’s 12 years at Field-Stevenson have been under the shadow of No Child Left Behind federal legislation, passed during the first month of President George Bush’s first term in 2001. NCLB is criticized among educators for lumping special education test scores in with the general population and for creating a culture that teaches to high-stakes tests. Eighty percent of Illinois schools failed to make Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) this year.
He believes NCLB’s days are numbered. “When New Trier (Township High School in Winnetka) fails to make AYP, then you know something is wrong [with the assessment],” he says. “No Child Left Behind is good politics and bad policy,” he says. “Unfortunately high-stakes tests have become the fabric of our education system.”
With experience as principal of kindergarteners through fifth graders, Mr. G says it’s crystal clear to him that children develop at different rates and that a better assessment of their knowledge would be to look at growth over the years. He likens the ISAT tests to a “snapshot” which is not very useful. “A status test is easy to give. It’s much more difficult to give a test assessing growth. Where did a child’s growth start out, and where is it now?”
“I honestly have seen children crying over those test scores in their classes. They were so frustrated,” he says.
However, he sees great success in D91’s move to the “grade center” model, where schools consolidate students in grades kindergarten to second and third to fifth grades. “When I was principal at Betsy Ross, [before the consolidation] the teachers had no support group. There was only one first grade teacher, one second grade.” Now teachers compare notes, he says. And importantly, “kids are exposed to more than one teacher.” Grade centers also created joint Parent Teacher Organizations (PTOs), which boost fundraising for student extras.
The anti-teacher and anti-union sentiment in last year’s political scene were the most vehement he’s seen in 40 years, he says. “Politicians have made teachers the enemy, not parents. There are bad teachers, of course. In most cases you get rid of them. The administrator has to do the job. You try to remediate the person and if it works it works. If it doesn’t work, they’re gone.”
He’s quick to add that D91 teachers and administrators don’t fall into that category. “They always put the children first.”
To show his appreciation, he throws a yearly lasagna party for teachers and staff, cooking five large pans of lasagna in the Forest Park Middle School home economics ovens over the weekend before holiday break. “I make 16 quarts of marinara sauce,” he says. Secret ingredients include carrots and mushrooms as well as ricotta, parmesan and mozzarella cheeses. “Then the pasta elves from the staff come in,” and assemble the lasagnas. He crumbles meatballs into the meat flavored lasagnas and makes several meatless, he says. “We freeze them and reheat them for the party. Everyone knows lasagna is better reheated because the flavors have a chance to really mix up.”
Advice to Field-Stevenson’s next principal? “Listen to your staff – get to know the kids. It’s important. Sit back six months and observe before you start making changes. Lead from the front. Bring staff in on the decision making process. Most importantly, have fun.”
Looking forward to retirement, Mr. G says he has his eye on a “one-week cooking course in Tuscany. That would be nice. I’d like to figure out what I want to do when I grow up.”