It’ll be interactive,” was the promise Superintendent Lou Cavallo made to the Forest Park District 91 school board, describing how he would model his State of the District address March 19.
Cavallo followed through with the promise by asking the crowd of 50 audience members to ask questions right away in the gym of Garfield School.
The audience responded quickly.
“Are we too rich?” was the first question, followed by queries about foreign languages, riding bikes to school in the primary grades, an assessment of the grade-level center decision, summer school plans and how the district compares with others.
Questions were recorded by Asst. Superintendent for Operations Ed Brophy, who wrote them on large sheets of paper and posted them on the wall. As Cavallo made his way through the presentation, he addressed these and other questions from the audience.
School board President Frank Mott told the crowd the district had developed both a mission and vision, based on preferences expressed by the community.
“We ask ourselves at every meeting, ‘What is the purpose of this school district?’ and ‘Where do we want the district to go?”‘ Mott said.
“The community can hold Dr. Cavallo and the board responsible for meeting the goals set out by the board of education based on the concerns of the community,” Mott added.
Cavallo’s presentation touched on six “core values” the district has defined for itself. These are academic growth for all students, communication, character education, physical plants, teacher quality and budget management.
As Cavallo promised, he did not present an acronym-laden presentation of district strategies, but rather pointed to the district’s website and showed audience members where they can find “as much or as little information as you want.”
Regarding academic growth, Cavallo said the district’s goals were to measure growth in all students using cumulative Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) testing, which is computer-based and personalized.
Cavallo also noted as part of the switch to Common Core standards that the district would be adding more non-fiction reading and a newly prioritized focus on writing and maintaining writing portfolios for students.
As far as comparing the district to others academically, Cavallo said, test scores were rising but that the switch to Common Core, as well as the phasing out of the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) and phasing in of an interim test, followed by a new test called PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) meant, “Illinois is in a state of flux,” according to Cavallo.
Languages and summer school
Expanding foreign languages would stretch resources in a small school district, he said, so additional foreign language instruction in the lower grades would not be happening.
When asked about summer school, Cavallo said it was frustrating that not enough students had signed up last year. Parents in the audience said that the district needed to coordinate with the park district and community center so schedules could be meshed with summer school enrichment classes. Parents said summer school offerings were announced too late, since summer camp signup deadlines were March 1.
Discussing district communication, Cavallo said parents surveyed said they preferred to hear about their own child’s progress and activities at their own school. He noted that the district’s Facebook page needs to be updated more frequently, but that social media opened a district up to legal issues. He said a newsletter sent the community was determined not to be terribly effective.
Cavallo also said he is pushing principals to recreate a north side PTO, which was disbanded two years ago.
Cavallo said character education was a priority for the district and that the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports strategies in place community-wide were making Forest Park a national model.
Visiting educators come to District 91 schools to see the program in action, he said.
“We educate the heart to make good citizens and teach students the social and emotional skills they need,” Cavallo said.
When asked by a parent about cyber-bullying Cavallo said, “I’ll probably get in trouble for this, but some of the worst cyber-bullies in this community are adults. We need to get a grasp on this as a community.”
Grade-level centers evaluated
With regard to the grade-level center consolidation, three years out Cavallo considered the program a success. He said he was able to combine grades without busing children “all over town” to manage class sizes as he might have had to do with four different elementary schools.
School board member Mary Turek said when schools house more than one classroom of the same grade, teachers are able to collaborate. Before “teachers were working in isolation,” she said.
Biking to school
Biking to school is still not an option for students in kindergarten through third grade, Cavallo said, because the bike racks have not been installed. He said the district was still putting into place the walk/bike to school plans coordinated by Active Trans and Live Healthy Forest Park.
“Once the bike racks are in, please encourage your child to bike or walk to school,” he said.
All of the school buildings have been updated and remodeled, Cavallo said. The last significant project is an addition for Betsy Ross School, 1315 Marengo Ave.
This brought him to the subject of finances, and the first question asked by the audience, “Are we too rich?”
Cavallo said the district was ranked in the “financial recognition” or top tier of districts statewide for financial solvency, and that since last year the number of schools in the “financial watch” bottom tier has doubled.
“Of 860 school districts in Illinois, 66.7 percent of them are in deficit spending,” he said. “We’re not one of them.”
“We will be one of the few districts who can retain good fund balances and provide a top-notch education,” he added.
Cavallo said Illinois state pension reform was still a question in Springfield and the state was giving less and less money to school districts.
“The question is what will [pension reform] look like and who’s going to pay for it? At this point we’re so tired of waiting we just say, ‘Just tell us what it’s going to be.'”
Cavallo said the district’s operational fund balance has allowed the district to go nine years without a referendum and will probably not need another referendum for at least 10 more.
“The board decided to give money back through a tax abatement,” he said. “But we have not stopped looking at the option of reducing the levy.”
“Are we too rich? No, we’ve taken a conservative approach and we’re smart,” he said.
Frank Mott added, “Many school districts are cutting programs. We are adding programs. But we are careful and we don’t spend a dime on anything that is not in the district’s mission.”