Last summer, as part of its strategic plan, the District 91 Board of Education tasked Superintendent Louis Cavallo with presenting “a report that examines the expansion of the foreign language curriculum.”

In the ensuing months, Dr. Cavallo conferred with his administration and developed a plan for accomplishing this goal. As reported by the Review at the time, the plan was announced at April’s State of the District address. The plan calls for shifting the district’s current Spanish program, which is offered to a select group of high-performing students, to be included in the “exploratory” curriculum. Students are able to take one exploratory course per trimester and can opt into classes ranging from robotics to band.

In describing the changes at the time, Cavallo said “Foreign language was an optional program for a select few students. That is no longer the case. Any student who wants to take foreign language will be able to. We will be offering Spanish to all students at the middle school level.”

The plan quickly received significant criticism from school community members who felt that the existing advanced-level program benefited many students. More recently, Monique Hoskins, a D91 parent and Spanish teacher in neighboring Oak Park, petitioned the school board to include the curriculum changes on its June 11 agenda. Board policy allows for community members to suggest agenda items with the consent of the board President and the superintendent.

Hoskins’ request, which was made on behalf of a group of D91 parents, was accepted. Determining curriculum is the prerogative of the superintendent and his administrative team, so curriculum changes normally do not require a board vote. However, as Cavallo told the Review, “We decided to include the agenda item in order to have an open and honest discussion with the public. … We knew parents would be [at the June 11 meeting].” Cavallo also mentioned the board asked for a “report” in order to explore curriculum alterations without committing to changes.

The petition called for the vote to decide whether or not to keep the current, advanced-level Spanish language program. At the standing-room-only meeting, the board unanimously voted against that proposal. Hoskins told the Review the petition was “probably the only way [the parents] would have a voice in what would happen for the upcoming school year.”

Several board members, including Rafael Rosa, told attendees the decision was difficult.

“My struggle now with the vote is this: I am not happy with this option but at the same time I am not happy with setting a precedent of overruling the [administration] we have put in charge of doing this. That makes me really uncomfortable for the long term.”

Eric Connor added, “One of the things is that you do not step on the administrator’s toes. … You have given him authority to make administrative decisions.”

When asked by the Review why the board did not table the issue and take action at a later date, Mary Win Connor, president of the board, told the Review, “If we do not trust our superintendent enough to not micromanage him, the relationship could become seriously damaged.”

After the initial April announcement, Cavallo met with several groups of parents to discuss the issue. However, citing enrollment, cost considerations and scheduling difficulties, Cavallo maintained that the exploratory option was the most effective way to accomplish the board’s goal of exposing more students to a foreign language.

Hoskins told the Review she was “confused” by the district’s rationale and added, “In this global society with the prevalence of Spanish-speaking people in the United States, [foreign language instruction] really needs to be more of a priority.”

Cavallo also downplayed the success of the current, advanced-level program.

“The notion that all of our students who have had the three-year program are fluent in a language and they can speak a language and are testing out of foreign language in high school isn’t true. Not all of them are. Very few of them actually make it through the three years, approximately half.”

At the June 11 meeting, Cavallo unveiled an accommodation for students who wish to pursue an advanced Spanish program during the upcoming school year. A “zero period,” (i.e. early morning) twice weekly, graded honors-level course, will be available to students beginning next academic year. Along with this course, the district will also provide an intensive test prep course before high school entrance exams as well as informational sessions for parents.

Referring to the “zero hour” course, Hoskins said, “I am not happy with it. However, it is better than nothing.”

Another parent, Anna Friedman, described the “zero hour” as a “terrible plan,” adding that many adolescents struggle to learn effectively during early morning hours. Another parent, with two children at Forest Park Middle School, told the Review the early morning start time might negatively affect children who receive free or reduced-priced meals. “Would they have to miss a part of the class in order to receive breakfast for the day?” she asked.

“The change makes our school system less attractive to parents [and] makes Forest Park a place that people with young children will bypass when looking for homes in favor of more progressive school districts of which there are many immediately surrounding,” remarked Friedman.

Although the district will implement the changes in the 2015-16 school year, Connor said, “There is always the possibility of doing other things but, at this point, the decision is made to move forward with the plan presented by the superintendent.” 

The board also plans to meet in the next few weeks for its annual strategic planning session. Referring to those discussions, Connor said, “I have no doubt the topic of foreign language education will be part of that.” 

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