Starting with a vexing vortex, Forest Park Elementary District 91 made the news when it was the only district in the Chicago area to keep schools open during days of extreme cold that dipped to -17 degrees. Parents could choose whether to send their children to school.

The decision caused a public outcry, both for and against. Teachers union members complained that teachers were put in danger and had to find daycare for their own children. Approximately 70, or less than 10 percent of students, showed up to school on Jan. 6. 

Supt. Lou Cavallo said few parents had the option of in-home daycare, so kids would be left alone or have to go outside for daycare anyway. 

“We work inside,” he said. “We expect our staff to be here. The only thing that would put our staff in danger is if there was snow on the roads, and the roads were clear.”

Schools closed during a second cold snap a few weeks later.

Bus cameras nixed

In February, the D91 school board unanimously shot down a proposal to equip school bus stop arms with traffic cameras. The board killed what was to be a three-way deal between the village, D91 and camera company RedSpeed Illinois LLC. 

Fifty-one stop-arm violations were tallied in one week near Grant-White School, but board members were not convinced the traffic cameras and the $150 to $500 citations they generated actually had any effect on the safety of students. Cavallo said the schools were “not in the revenue business.” 

RedSpeed promotional materials showed the revenue kept pouring in, meaning drivers didn’t change their behavior. What did have a calming effect was the presence of a police vehicle, Cavallo told the board, but Forest Park police could not spare a squad car every day.

Village commissioners Tom Mannix and Mark Hosty criticized the school board. Both commissioners had a financial relationship to RedSpeed, which donated $2,000 to the Forest Park PAC.

Hosty said the school board had decided not to “actually care about the safety of the children” and Mannix said the board “had no spine.”

Betsy Ross school addition, playgrounds

The board approved a new $3.73-million addition to be built onto Forest Park’s tiniest and oldest school, Betsy Ross, 1315 Marengo Ave. The new space allows the district to get rid of the trailer behind the building and finally have rooms for music and art. The district paid cash for the new construction, which brought the school into parity with others in the district. 

The district’s first school playground was installed at Betsy Ross, which led to authorization to build playgrounds at all four primary schools. 

Free preschool, one-to-one laptops

District 91 rolled out free half-day preschool at Garfield School for Forest Park kids, and the program instantly filled. In 2014, the district added two new classes to the program, serving a total of 120 special-ed and regular-ed students. The waiting list is still full, and the program may expand to the Betsy Ross building.

In January 2014, after training for both teachers and students, students in Forest Park Middle School finally got their hands on 250 Google Chromebook laptops as part of the district’s One-to-One technology initiative. Students were able to grade each other’s work, collaborate on presentations, use digital note-taking for term papers and take part in online classroom discussions. The district rolled out laptops to all students, K-8, in fall 2014. 

Proviso East fire, D209 repairs planned

For Proviso Township High School District 209, 2014 was a year of backward and forward steps.

An electrical fire in May at Proviso East High School caused $5 million worth of damage and perhaps pushed over the last barrier in the school board’s hesitancy to borrow money to make decades-overdue repairs and replacements. The Financial Oversight Panel gave the board another incentive by announcing they would make plans to exit the district, if money were borrowed to complete life-safety repairs. 

In December, the board finally voted to borrow $30 million to dig into life-safety repairs from electrical work to doors, windows and floors.

Summer school problems, test scores improve

The D209 board and administration investigated a possible 2013 summer school computer-testing cheating incident in June 2014 when data was uncovered showing 10 percent of summer school students had somehow accessed APEX online tests outside of school hours. Some had finished all tests for six-week classes within a week. 

Teachers who may have neglected to “lock” tests, or somehow divulged password security were let go, then re-hired after intensive training in the APEX system.

Good news came in the fall, when the school board released results from the Prairie State Achievement Examination (PSAE) and the ACT college entrance exams. Test scores improved at all three high schools. 

Proviso East High School composite scores rose from 16 percent of juniors meeting or exceeding state standards to 21 percent. Proviso West scores rose from 25 percent to 30 percent meet-or-exceed. Proviso Math and Science Academy scores jumped from 70 percent to 81 percent meet-or-exceed, an all-time high. All full-time teachers at PMSA got a $1,500 bonus. 

In September, PMSA was also rated a “top school in America” by Newsweek magazine.

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...