With the academic year coming to a close, District 91 Superintendent Louis Cavallo delivered his ninth annual State of the District address to parents and community members on May 18 at Betsy Ross School.
Noting the event’s best turnout to date, Cavallo said that, based on faculty and community requests, the evening would feature fewer graphs and charts and more candid discussion regarding where the district is headed in the future.
He began by explaining how, with technology more present in schools than ever before and national education standards rapidly changing, D91 has been gearing up all year in order to help children succeed in a 21st-century world.
“Education in general is changing drastically, and we’re preparing kids for an unknown world,” Cavallo said.
Because D91 is committed to modernizing education, Cavallo told the audience, Forest Park schools have begun participating in a national initiative called “Future Ready Schools,” a framework for helping school district leaders plan and execute personalized and research-based digital learning strategies in order to successfully personalize learning for all students. The initiative calls for educators to recognize the importance of digital technology in the classroom in order to apply cutting-edge learning tools to traditional subjects.
While the district is fortunate to have all the technology it has, Cavallo said, they now must analyze exactly how they are using it and incorporate principles of Future Ready Schools to ensure that computers and other devices are supplementing educational goals and not just serving as distractions or being underutilized.
“We don’t just want to throw machines in a room and say we’re a one-to-one computer district,” he said. “We want to use technology in an innovative way.”
Beginning next school year, all Forest Park school students in third through eighth grades will be taking their own individual Google Chromebooks home in order to complete school work.
Cavallo then discussed the controversial Common Core Standards Initiative, saying while there are many misconceptions about the program, it is a great way to get students to think deeper and work more rigorously.
“In math, we’re not just teaching a whole lot of different equations that you must memorize; we now want kids to understand mathematical concepts,” he said. “The more they understand, the more they can progress.”
While teaching to Common Core is more difficult than older methods, Cavallo believes that the district has made great strides in extending professional development to get all staff on board with the new requirements.
“Our staff has aligned our curriculum maps with the standards,” he said. “Educators in general are pretty much in favor of Common Core. You hear a lot of negative about it, but educators are saying, ‘This is a better set of standards. This is good stuff for kids to know.’ [But] we can’t teach in the same way we used to.”
This year, D91 worked in collaboration with area school districts and the University of Illinois Chicago to help teachers learn how to teach in creative ways using Common Core and help students learn how to understand the initiative’s new concepts.
Later, Cavallo discussed the educational controversy surrounding PARCC exams.
When PARCC was administered for the first time last year, student scores in Forest Park were not very high. This year, the district has been working hard to fix that.
“Everyone in the state experienced something similar, but we learned that some districts scored better than others because of the way they gave the test. If schools gave it on paper, they scored better than schools who gave it on the computer, [and] we gave it on the computer,” he said, adding that he was not making excuses as to why student test scores were low but last year the district did not have an assessment method to determine whether the way they taught to the new Common Core standards was actually working. This year, the district has begun focusing not on how to raise test scores, but how to holistically teach Common Core and educational concepts to students.
“We could worry a lot about PARCC and that one test score and forget about the individual student learning. That would not be a wise thing,” Cavallo said. “Eight years ago, the ISAT scores in this district were low and had been low for about seven years straight. When we started doing the things necessary to work on individual student learning, our test scores grew and grew every year. Now we need to start over. We need to start focusing on individual student learning, not focusing on the test score.”
Additionally, Cavallo said the district has been working hard to engage the community more than ever. The hiring of a communications and public relations manager has been helpful in spreading the word to parents and community members about school programs. He also addressed the recent core value focus groups that were generated from community-wide surveys with questions on how to improve the village’s schools. Over 100 community members submitted surveys and Cavallo said it has proven that the community is invested in its youngest residents.
“We want to build a sense of community so the schools can be the backbone of Forest Park,” Cavallo said.
In August, the district is planning on holding a community 5K run/walk as part of a bigger back-to-school event to draw in Forest Parkers to see what the district has to offer.
Regarding resources and financing for the future, Cavallo said that despite budgeting failures at the state and national level, D91 remains in “fairly good shape regardless of funding. Fund balances and levy strategies have been successful thus far.”
Overall, Cavallo reminded Forest Parkers that even though education is changing, the district remains committed to providing exceptional service.
“We want to be innovative and cutting edge,” he concluded. “We don’t want to be mediocre. We want to be the best.”