Theresa Kelly and Kevin McDermott

From heated school board controversies to changes in state standardized testing procedures and everything in between, 2016 was an active year for both the elementary and high school districts in Forest Park.

District 209

PMSA entrance exam

In January, the D209 school board took no action on allowing make-up test dates for PMSA entrance exams despite allegations of poor communication and publicity about entrance exam dates to parents across the district. 209 Together slate members Theresa Kelly, Claudia Medina and Ned Wagner suggested that the board strongly consider administering a make-up test and devise clearer methods of communication to feeder schools across Proviso Township in ample time before a new test date.

In response, PMSA Principal Bessie Karvelas contended the district did everything necessary to administer the test and publicize the opportunity. Board member Brian Cross said while communications weren’t the best, creating a make-up date could appear unfair to students who already took the entrance exam and might open the district to potential lawsuits.

At a meeting at the end of August, the district agreed to approve new PMSA entrance guidelines following community input and the implementation of a PMSA Admission Advisory Committee to review the history of the entrance exam and explore clearer options in the future. Medina, who earlier advocated for changes to the entrance exam, was one of the board members who helped spearhead the committee.

One update included Karvelas choosing the PSAT as the new entrance exam over the ACT-based Explore Exam to better reflect academic performance aligned with the new state-mandated SAT. Also, a new timeline for the district was approved to alert parents about whether their children had been selected to attend PMSA, in order to alleviate any issues relating to students not hearing back from PMSA before deadlines for application to the other Proviso high schools or local parochial schools. The district also said they would look to update advertisements and include more feeder elementary schools to better promote PMSA.

New superintendent in town

This spring, D209 unanimously approved hiring Jesse Rodriguez as the district’s newest superintendent following a long search process to replace outgoing superintendent Nettie Hart-Collins. Rodriguez came to the district from Milwaukee, where he served as the regional superintendent for southwest Milwaukee public schools. Throughout the fall, Rodriguez pledged to bring hope to the challenges of the district and a “can do” attitude to all three Proviso high schools.

However, Rodriguez’s hiring did not come without its share of controversy, including a social media statement from nonprofit Maywood Youth Mentoring and outspoken youth advocate Barbara Cole advising the board against his hire because of what she considered his heavy Spanish accent. Other community members commented in online forums that the district should have chosen an African American candidate for superintendent.

Change of leadership and chicken fight

Following heated debates about changing the board presidency term from two years to one year and a heated walk-out from members Brian Cross, Teresa McKelvy, Daniel Adams and Kevin McDermott at a previous meeting, McKelvy was chosen by the same board majority to replace Theresa Kelly as board president at a meeting on May 6. The move, which was called a politically-motivated one by Medina, Kelly and Ned Wagner, was also followed by citizen comments asking why such a move was necessary when board focus should be on more important issues like the upcoming school year, standardized testing and other district improvements.

Later in the summer, McDermott was charged with battery and assault for his alleged role during an altercation with Kelly over a chicken meal following the Aug. 9 school board meeting at PMSA. Police advised McDermott that Kelly wanted to press charges against him after Kelly was discharged from Oak Park Hospital claiming she suffered a sprained shoulder and cuts to her hand during a scuffle with McDermott where, allegedly, Kelly took a Styrofoam box of chicken from the table, McDermott “alligator clamped” the box with his hands, a tug-of-war ensued and chicken was “flying” across the room. Witnesses said McDermott then had his fists clenched. McDermott alleged Kelly flailed her arms, hitting him in the face, knocking off his glasses and resulting in a cut lip. He reportedly admitted to grabbing Kelly’s right arm during the scuffle.

 District 91

Compared to Proviso, the Forest Park D91 school board had a drama-free and productive 2016.

Throughout the spring, Superintendent Lou Cavallo announced that, due to school districts statewide struggling in 2015 to administer the new PARCC exam without hiccups, D91 would work to better prepare students and staff the second time around. The district rewrote its curriculum, provided in-depth professional development workshops for faculty on Common Core and even purchased new classroom technologies to help meet the more rigorous testing standards. 

For parents, Cavallo and the district remained committed to educating parents on Common Core and PARCC through written communications about the exams, updates on student classroom work and ways students could prepare at home. Nonetheless, the PARCC exam continued to remain a topic of concern for district parents — as it has been statewide — with parents wishing the state focused less on changing traditional curriculums to “teach to the test.”

Cavallo reinstated his “Coffee with Dr. Cavallo” program in April, a program he first started when he began in the district eight years prior.

While Cavallo had previously cancelled the program due to dwindling attendance, but he decided to reinstate it after discussions with administrators and board members on how to better engage with the community.

“Coffee with Dr. Cavallo” was a four-part discussion series in which the superintendent spoke with parents at schools in the district while they dropped their children off for school in the mornings. While there were no specific topics for discussion, Cavallo remained open to listening and answering whatever questions families had for him.

Back in June, despite the lack of a compromise between legislators and Governor Bruce Rauner preventing the passage of a state budget, Cavallo and the school board announced that because of district frugality and smart planning, the district would begin school smoothly and adhere to its budget for the 2016-2017 school year.

The district had fund reserves allowing schools to sustain current levels of programming, allowing the district to stay one step ahead of state moves in order to avoid financial and planning crises. In Forest Park, state funding makes up 8 percent of total district revenue.

In order to continue providing the same level of services to Forest Park students, the board unanimously voted to approve a waiver of fees for kindergarten through eighth grade registration and a waiver of field trip fees, including the district’s annual fifth grade outdoor education program in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin.

Following community surveys and district focus groups conducted in the spring, the district was able to accurately determine new district core values. The board identified strengths including diversity, clear communication and small class sizes, and a huge perceived weakness being the connection with High School District 209. Cavallo remarked that most parents and community members surveyed said the district has excellent teachers, appreciate the class sizes and hope for continued focus on refurbishing buildings to meet 21st-century student needs.

When newly-elected school board member Nora Bowker resigned in July after moving out of district, Forest Park resident Kyra Tyler was unanimously appointed to the board to fill the remainder of Bowker’s term.

According to board president Mary Win Connor, Tyler’s profile matched the needs of the board more than the two other applicants. When Tyler heard of the board opening, she applied because she wanted to help other Forest Parkers get the same positive experience she had with her child’s educational start in the district.

By the end of the year, six candidates had submitted petitions to run for the six open seats (four 4-year terms and two 2-year terms), reflecting the amount of turnover on the D91 board in the last few years.