As students headed back to school last week in Forest Park, the District 91 Board of Education formalized six goals they hoped will improve the district this year. The targets, which were hammered out at a board retreat in July, are given to the district as guidelines.

“The administration develops specific strategies to meet the goals,” said school board President Frank Mott.

The targeted goals cover six areas: individual student academic growth; communication with the community; character education; school physical plants; teacher hiring, development and retention; and a balanced budget and tax abatement strategy.

This year, the board agreed to classify the goals according to the SMART acronym “Simple, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound,” said Mott, noting that each goal had a measurable deadline to keep the board and district accountable.

Individual academic growth

As soon as students returned to school this week, they were immediately being assessed with Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) tests in Reading, Math and Science. Every student takes the computerized tests, which are customized to each student. The difficulty of each question is based on the answers to the previous question.

The school tests students again at mid-year and year’s end to measure their academic growth. When MAP testing was introduced last year, the district was surprised to find that many “Tier 1” students, who received good grades in school, failed to show growth by the end of the year. The district has hired a math consultant for the elementary schools and teachers are taking math booster classes at UIC to help them teach intermediate students who need more challenging material.

D91’s goal is to have 70 percent of students meeting targeted academic growth in reading and math by spring of 2013. Last year, 61 percent of students in reading and 60 percent in math had reached their targets. The administration will determine their success via reports at February and June board meetings.

Two way communication

The board agreed to send a survey to village residents to gauge satisfaction with how well the school district communicates. The district already sends a newsletter to every mailing address in Forest Park.

“We’ve been struggling with this for years,” said Mott. “One of the governing principles of the Illinois Association of School Boards is to have good communication with the community, so we can represent them.” The district has a citizens advisory council that meets regularly during the school year, but participation has reportedly been lackluster. At the Aug. 9 school board meeting, Superintendent Lou Cavallo suggested that if the board isn’t getting complaints, they might be doing something right. Mott noted that, in 2008 when the board voted to consolidate schools into grade centers, “Boy, did we hear from people.”

Character education

The board outlined a goal to improve “comprehensive character education” in D91 schools. The district has invested time and training in the Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports (PBIS) system. The system is spreading village-wide to the public library, community center, park district and police department. The board hopes to reduce office daily referrals (ODR) throughout the district by 10 percent by the end of the 2012-13 school year.

School environments

The district has finished improvement projects at four of the five schools in the district, including new air-conditioning chillers at Field-Stevenson and Forest Park Middle School, and new tile and remodels at Grant-White and Garfield schools. What remains is the most expensive project: a potential building expansion to Betsy Ross School, which was built in 1926.

“Back then, they didn’t build music rooms and multi-purpose rooms and offices,” said Supt. Cavallo. The school currently has a portable trailer unit behind the building. The board will decide whether to build an addition onto the school by January 2013.

Teacher quality, retention and development

The board has asked the school district give them a data report on teacher demographics, recruitment, hiring, continuous development and retention of teachers at the end of the school year. The district hopes to better quantify the qualifications and experience of its teachers in an easy-to-understand way.

Tax abatement and budgeting

The district was tasked with continuing property tax levy strategies to rebate as much as possible to taxpayers without raising the risk of having to go to referendum to ask for more money.

“For the next two years, our abatement strategy comes out of our debt fund,” said Mott. A bond instrument issued by the village several years ago will retire in 2014. The goal is to rebate to taxpayers the amount that would have been used for debt service.

D91 Finance Director Ed Brophy analyed financial models to make sure that any tax abatement would not be swamped by pension obligations if they are pushed back onto local school districts by legislators in Springfield.

“Ed did a worst-case scenario model,” Mott said. “Even with that, we’re still pretty good. We’re still going to go ahead and abate the taxes.” The district abated $500,000 last year in property taxes.

“Any relief we can provide the taxpayers, the better,” said Mott.

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...