During the summer, Ernesto Gasse would rather be playing outside with his friends. In the winter, he’d rather be playing inside with his brother Antonio.
Instead, he’s reviewing math problems with his father Daniel every night of the week, spending at least 20 minutes reviewing geometry, algebra, fractions and more.
“I don’t like it, but I want to get into PMSA,” said Ernesto, noting that when he takes practice entrance tests for Proviso Math and Science Academy, he doesn’t know half the material. Then he reflects on how all his friends who are a year older had trouble placing into Proviso Math and Science Academy, too. Those District 91 students did get in, but many had to take a summer school course, said Daniel.
“They graded in the bottom of the pack; they got in by the skin of their teeth,” Daniel said, referring to his son’s older friends. “They took summer classes to get up to level to get to the [International Baccalaureate] level and I saw them literally crying; they could not catch up with the level needed. And they were the best students in Forest Park Middle School.”
In an effort to address concerns from parents like Gasse, D91 schools recently released their annual strategic plan for fiscal year 2018, which aims to make students more high school ready, increase annual PARCC test scores, and make the district more equitable for minority students.
D91 is revamping its curriculum around the PARCC scores, making sure that concepts build on one another, no subject is left uncovered, and reflecting on how much time is spent on individual subjects. The new curriculum will be launched at the beginning of next school year, with increased time spent teaching math at the middle school level. Teachers are also being told to focus on interdisciplinary learning — no reason math can’t be included during a social studies class, right?
Forest Park teachers are also touring schools from other exemplary districts, with staff visiting west suburban Glen Ellyn last week to study practices of schools that scored high on the state test. Teaching methods are also being reviewed. Over the past few years they’ve focused mostly on the cognitive guided method, which places an emphasis on learning a concept first and then a formula.
Finally, the district will soon begin working with the National Equity Project to address issues of cultural bias in course materials. Over the past few years, the district has tried to hire staff reflecting the diversity of the school community.
“We’re a little over 50 percent now of the administration that are more representative of our community,” Supt. Louis Cavallo said.
This year, D91 also implemented the FastBridge Learning program, a test that provides educators immediate results on how students scored and what they need to work on. Cavallo said teachers use data from FastBridge to identify which students need more challenging materials, and those who need subject intervention from a teaching specialist. Interventions vary from school to school but, in general, students are given a set time of day where they either receive more advanced materials or additional attention on a single subject. Students who receive subject intervention are re-tested every week or two, to see if the extra help is working.
Cavallo credits this “multi-tiered system of support” to increasing the district’s PARCC scores over the past three years. The state average PARCC scores have remained flat. Meanwhile, D91’s test scores rose four points to 25 percent of students who met or exceeded state standards in 2017. The district aims to increase overall PARCC scores by 10 percent in math and English Language Arts by fiscal year 2019.
“I look at the scores and I go, ‘Wow, that looks horrible, that’s not what we want the perception of our district to be,” Cavallo said. “But nothing that is this complex, and this difficult can be done immediately, so we just have to keep working.”
In Cavallo’s mind, the hard work has already paid off, at least partially. He said a quarter of this year’s eighth-grade class was accepted into the Proviso Math and Science Academy. Another quarter was accepted into the honors program at Proviso East High School.
Cavallo believes D91 students are prepared for high school, but it’s hard to know what they achieve once they get there, since the majority of students attend private high schools like Trinity or Fenwick after eighth grade. Due to privacy concerns, he said, schools cannot offer information on specific students once they enroll out of district.
“It’s been that way forever in Forest Park,” Cavallo said, adding, “Over the last couple of years, we’ve seen greater numbers of kids reporting that they are going to Proviso. We feel optimistic things are changing, and that more and more of our community will choose to go there. It is their choice; it has nothing to do with us; we don’t encourage one school over another. It’s a family choice.”
And for the Gasses, their top choice is Proviso Math and Science Academy. Their method of getting there? Hiring a private tutor for Ernesto for English Language Arts, tutoring him on their own in math, and sending the seventh-grader to a summer program at Dominican University where he will focus on statistics, science, robotics and more.
“My son asks me, ‘Why do I have to waste my summer and you have to waste your money?'” Gasse said. “And he’s right. I’m coaching him at home, which I think is kind of contradictory, a musician teaching math at home, when I have a math teacher at school who is supposed to be teaching him.”