Getting ready for the Common Core, Forest Park schools are well positioned to make the transition to a new curriculum and teaching evaluations, Superintendent Lou Cavallo told a group of about 50 attending the State of the District address at Garfield school April 16.

The talk was interactive with audience participation from two Forest Park village commissioners Mark Hosty and Rory Hoskinswho presented two different perspectives of Forest Park Middle School.Hosty (whose children attend private schools) complained parents were leaving the district because of FPMS behavior problems while Hoskins said he was very satisfied with the district and thought his children were well served by the school.

The crowd, filled with about half administrators and staff and half parents, heard about the six “core values” the district has tagged as being crucial to every action the board takes. 

School Board President Frank Mott told the group how the district started to improve test scores when they linked every item on the board agenda to specific goals hammered out in board retreats over the summer.

“We were recognized nationally this year for this practice at the National Assn. of School Boards meeting in New Orleans,” Mott said.

Likewise, Cavallo structured the address to follow the six values: continuous academic improvement, communication, character education, physical plants, teacher quality and budget management. 

Testing and more testing

One test is going away and two are taking its place, said Cavallo. The Illinois State Achievement Test, (ISAT) linked to measuring the now-obsolete Illinois Learning Standards was given to students last year. Cavallo has called that test a “snapshot” exam that reflects a student’s understanding at a point in time. 

Tests measuring student growth from one point to another called Measure of Academic Progress (MAP) testing have been used by the district for two years. Cavallo has found these tests helpful, and the district will continue to use them because state law means teacher evaluations are tied to growth model testing for students. New state regulations passed last year in the Performance Evaluation Reform Act (PERA) and Senate Bill 7 require school districts to evaluate teachers on how children grow academically.

But Cavallo said he thought adding the Common Core-designed PARCC (Partnership for the Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) test was going to displace lots of instructional time for students. 

Parents asked whether there was too much testing, and Cavallo agreed there was, but that the district had no choice. All in all, Cavallo said he supported the “more rigorous” curriculum and teaching methods of the Common Core, which he characterized as “long overdue.” 

Teachers were feeling the stress, Cavallo said, and lesson plans needed to be remade and teaching techniques needed to be tweaked. 

“There are a lot of overwhelmed teachers,” Cavallo said.  

The district has a goal of increasing student academic growth, as measured by the MAP exams, by nine percent in reading and six percent in math. 

“We always set up those stretch goals to help us try a little harder,” Cavallo said. “Our goal is continuous improvement.”

Foreign language

Responding to parent requests, foreign languages will be offered next year after school, Cavallo said, provided by a local Montessori school. The classes will be tuition-based, he said at the presentation.

 Cavallo didn’t mention prices, but at the April 10 school board meeting, he said the classes would cost $160 per month per student (or about $20 per class) and meet twice a week. Board members said that price was high and hoped the district could provide financial aid for students. 

Cavallo said at the board meeting the classes would be held only if there was enough interest, with a minimum participation goal of ten students. Languages initially offered will be Mandarin, Japanese and Spanish, Cavallo told the board. 

Special education

Cavallo said the district had progressed in its goal to offer special education services “in-district” for Forest Park students. 

“Our basic philosophy is no kid should have to go out of district [for special education services],” Cavallo said.

Families are grateful when siblings can attend the same school as a special ed student, Cavallo has told the board. He also has hopes neighboring districts may take advantage of D91’s services and may send tuition-paying students to the district.  The district moved former Forest Park Middle SchoolVice Principal Michelle Gossett to the position of Director of Student Services after Rose Gronko retired. 

No-tuition preschool

Cavallo said no-tuition preschool has been “wildly successful” with the classes filling up instantly. “We expanded to an extra class and that filled up right away too,” he said. 

“We will see whether that has an effect on enrollment in the upper grades,” Cavallo said. The district has been shrinking for years and is down to 812 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. 

District communication

Discussing district communication, Cavallo said the district would send out a newsletter to the entire community. The goal for the year is to have participation in a community survey in which 80 percent of respondents choose “satisfied” or “highly satisfied” with the district. 

Cavallo also said a north side PTO including parents from Grant-White and Garfield is being reconstituted.  Chyla Weaver will be the new principal at Grant-White School beginning in July.

PBIS reporting questioned

Cavallo said character education was a priority for the district.

“You’re probably sick of hearing about PBIS (Positive Behavioral Intervention and Supports) but it is working,” Cavallo said. Cavallos said in the five years he’d been at the district, office referrals for unacceptable student behavior had dropped by almost half. 

Forest Park Village Commissioner Mark Hosty, in the audience, said he had heard teachers were just more accepting of bad behavior in the classrooms and were under-reporting. Hosty said as a Realtor he was selling houses of Forest Parkers who wanted to leave the village because of problems at the middle school. 

“I lost half of our baseball and soccer teams because they moved out of Forest Park,” he said. 

But Cavallo vigorously disputed the characterization.

“When I got to this district there were fights,” he said. “We’ve had fights decrease significantly. Serious problems like weapons, drugs and alcohol, we don’t have any suspensions because we don’t have it.”

“We have the data and that’s not what the data show,” Cavallo said. “Teachers are absolutely not underreporting.”

District 91 school board member Rafael Rosa said he was pleased with the middle school. 

“A lot of people talking about Forest Park Middle School have no experience with the middle school,” Rosa said. “I encourage families with younger children to go to the middle school yourself and see some fantastic kids doing creative things.”

Commissioner Hoskins said he was pleased with the middle school where three of his four children had attended. 

Parent Mary Flanagan said her children had attended the middle school five years ago and she had a child there now. “I’ve absolutely noticed better behavior now,” she said. “They are very well-rounded and there are lots of opportunities in the arts.”

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...