“We want to take this district from good to great,” is District 91’s unofficial vision statement, said Frank Mott, president of the District 91’s school board, at the State of the District address at Garfield School April 19. Board members, principals, administrators and the superintendent gathered to present a snapshot of Forest Park’s schools, but only a handful of parents showed up to hear them.

New ideas this year include transitioning to a new state-mandated curriculum, a later summer school, and new high-stakes tests tracking students. The district has a new website, schools are still waiting for bike racks and Betsy Ross is in line to build an addition to replace temporary classrooms.

Superintendent Lou Cavallo presented a snapshot of the district, focusing on six areas: academics, communication, character education, physical plants, teacher quality and budget management. He invited audience comment and participation, saying “ideas that we received at last year’s state of the district meeting have been implemented this year.”

The majority of the presentation concerned academic strategies. District 91, along with all Illinois schools are straddling a state-mandated educational shift from the Illinois State Education standards to the new streamlined Common Core standards, which have been adopted by a majority of states across the U.S.

However, Cavallo noted, the Illinois Student Achievement Tests (ISATs) will continue to assess the old standards, so D91 is expecting a dip in ISAT test scores. “We have to realign our curriculum to the Common Core, but [next year] we’ll still be tested on ISAT.”

Cavallo discussed the new assessment system: Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) testing, which is computer-based and personalized to gauge student growth as opposed to attainment. “The guesswork is gone,” with the MAP tests, he said. “We can create a plan to meet each student where they are and work with their needs.” This includes children who are already grade-competent and need extra enrichment, he said.

The district is also taking a new look at 4-year-old preschool and comparing Forest Park offerings to other school districts, said Cavallo. Forest Park is unusual in that it offers a full day public Pre-K option.

New this year will be changes in summer school, Cavallo said. First, summer school dates are being shifted to the end of summer to give students who need help a “jump start” on the academic year. Summer school will focus on intensive reading for students who are “Tier 3” remedial readers, he said. The district also added a summer enrichment program — open to any student in the district — with fun classes based on teacher-generated ideas.

The district has overhauled its methods for communicating with parents, Cavallo said. “We asked parents what they wanted and we discovered that email is the preferred method of communication.” Also touted was D91’s new website, which provides access to online classroom and grade updates: via Edline in the older grades and using classroom pages in the lower grades. The district has eliminated the twice yearly newsletter sent by mail to every postal address in the village, Cavallo said. But a revamped “District Profile” will be sent to taxpayers once in the spring.

Cavallo also mentioned the importance of citizen’s advisory councils and feedback from parents and the community. The disbanding of the Grant-White and North PTAs was discussed. Cavallo said a “personality conflict” dissolved the parent organizations, but that they were working to get back on track.

A parent in the audience asked when the schools would have bike racks when Cavallo talked about Forest Park’s Healthy Communities Grant, which included encouraging children to ride bikes to school with new signage and streetscaping. Cavallo said the schools are waiting for bike racks to be installed with grants from the program.

Cavallo said the new character education Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) system continues to work well in the schools, resulting in a more-than-50 percent drop in students being sent to the office at Forest Park Middle School. Other communities are contacting D91 to ask for advice on implementing the system, he said. He also pointed out that instructional time is increased if teachers are not sidetracked with discipline issues.

Forest Park Public Library Director Rodger Brayden, who attended the presentation, said that since the library has begun to use PBIS terminology, he’s seen better behavior amongst children using the library. “When you deal with youngsters it helps if you’re speaking the same language,” he said.

Cavello also cautioned that even though bullying is a hot topic in schools around the country, “Bullying is not simple to overcome. There are no quick fixes and no easy answers. What works is hard work. Bullying takes a lot of time and effort to understand.”

As for the physical environments of the schools, Forest Park facilities are being upgraded in sequence, Cavallo said. He said technology was an area that needed to be approached with care because school districts often buy technological devices in bulk which then risk becoming obsolete. The next devices on the horizon were tablets and electronic textbooks, but that the district would move cautiously, he said.

Cavallo said the district needed to assess and deal with space issues at Betsy Ross, 1315 Marengo Ave., which was built in 1926. “Back then they didn’t build music rooms and multi-purpose rooms and offices.” The school’s portable unit behind the building is “a temporary solution” that needs to be addressed, he said. He also said Field-Stevenson and FPMS would be getting new air conditioning equipment.

As far as teacher quality, Cavallo said the recession has allowed D91 to pick and choose good teachers. The district actively seeks “minority candidates that reflect our diversity,” he said, but he added that all teachers were required to have “highly-qualified” certifications. New state rules give school districts new criteria for judging teachers, he said. “We won’t be limited to a checklist any more.”

The district will hold an open house to meet new Field-Stevenson principal Dr. Tiffany Brunson on May 22 at 6:30 p.m., he said.

Finally, Cavallo touted the spring tax abatement, a refund to the taxpayers of almost $500,000, which came from interest on banked district funds. “It’s unheard of that a school district is giving back taxpayer money,” Cavallo said. The board has charged the administration to change the way they assess a levy to lessen the tax bite for Forest Parkers. “We have positive balances in all of our funds. There is no need to sell bonds. We see no need for a referendum in the foreseeable future. The board has made tough decisions,” Cavallo said.

Jean Lotus loves community journalism. She covers news, features, two school boards, village council, crime, park district and writes obits for Forest Park Review. She also covers the police beat for...