Below are candidate-submitted answers to a biographical survey the Forest Park Review sent out to all D91 board of education candidates running in this year’s elections. Candidates full, unedited responses are printed.
Don’t miss your chance to hear candidates debate the issues.
The Forest Park Review and the Chamber of Commerce will host a D91 school board candidate forum at 6:30 p.m. on March 6 at Forest Park Middle School, 925 Beloit Ave.
Previous elected experience: None
Previous community experience: Boy Scout troop 109 (engaged father), Assistant Coach for FPYSA, assist my wife Bridgett in her role as leader of the local Girl Scout troop
Occupation: Data Scientist
Education: BS FInance, University of Illinois @ Urbana-Champaign; MS Data Science, DePaul University (in last semester, completing degree in April, 2019)
1) How would you describe the communication style of Forest Park District 91 schools? What is the district currently doing and what more, if anything, do you believe D91 should be doing to communicate with residents and taxpayers? What should be the board’s role in engaging residents?
The board currently does not communicate with the general public in a consistent or complete manner. The board meetings are open, but the minutes are lacking in detail, and the public literally has no insight into what the board is doing unless they attend the meetings and/or engage directly with district leadership. The Communications Director has begun to change this, and I look forward to working with him to provide more timely and complete analysis, action plan and status reporting to the public. Specifically, efforts to improve test scores have been ongoing, but never comprehensively conveyed to the public except during board meetings. A detailed progress report on this initiative was presented at the January 10, 2019 meeting. I would expect a substantial summary of presentations like that one to be part of the meeting minutes at the very least – with discussion details as relevant. As of this writing, 1/29/19, the January 10 minutes have not been posted. The minutes from the meeting on December 13 included a discussion of PARCC test scores, which is presented in the minutes as ‘Dr. Cavallo presented the Districts PARCC scores. A lengthy discussion followed.’ This is completely inadequate and fails to inform the community about what was actually discussed, about a matter that is central to the communities concerns with the district. The board needs to engage, publicly, but with clarity, consistency, respect and substance, across a wide range of channels. They currently have clarity, respect and substance, but only at board meetings, which not everyone can attend. The various committees, coffees, etc. are excellent engagement opportunities, but they cannot replace an ongoing, consistent process of communicating in detail what steps are being taken to address areas of concern.
2) What role do parents play in D91?
Parents have two roles, in my view. First, to engage in two-way communication with the district. We need them to reinforce the lessons – academic and civic – that are taught and and we also need them to tell us about unmet needs or concerns they have. Second, vote and support the candidates they feel will best serve the community as a whole. I realize parents are busy, and that in an diverse community like Forest Park, engagement is going to be more challenging for some. This is why better engagement and communication is important – many community members literally have no idea what the board is doing to address areas of concern, and they should. As I noted above, I think the board needs to do better job enabling parental (and public) engagement.
3) Can you describe District 91’s relationship to Proviso Township High Schools District 209? What more, if anything, should D91 be doing to align itself to D209?
I have spoken to both our board (Dr. Cavallo, multiple board members) and Ned Wagner of 209 Together about the ongoing work our district is doing to make sure educational standards are aligned with 209, whether students go on to Proviso East or PMSA. I think current efforts to raise math and science scores in the middle school will help. The challenge is not in the curriculum in D91 – our curriculum was chosen based on rigorous research by Dr. Cavallo and his team and included visiting schools using the curriculum who have been successful with it, so we could bring those best practices back to D91. I spoke with Dr. Cavallo about this, and he indicated that the failure was not due to a few ‘outlier’ students, but a generalized lower level of performance, which is important to know because this specific data point tells us the problem is either the curriculum, or its implementation. We are confident it is not the curriculum, as I noted above – the problem is in the implementation, which the Board and Dr. Cavallo understand well, and are dealing with appropriately, and in fact reported on those efforts and progress made at length at the January, 2019 meeting, but as I noted above, that analysis and detail have not been communicated to the public.
Based on what we know of where our students end up – and we have limited data on that, because receiver schools are not obliged to tell us – our students generally perform at the same level they leave D91, suggesting our standard align with receiver schools, including Proviso East. For students going to PMSA, we are one of ten towns feeding into PMSA, so more than three quarters of our students will never be able to go there no matter how good their test scores are, so specifically aligning with PMSA will not serve the majority of our students particularly well. Additionally, PMSA offers an International Baccalaureate diploma, but does not offer Advanced Placement courses. There are arguments to be made for both IB and AP curricula, but transitioning to IB would require D91 to completely retool its curriculum, which is expensive. Teachers would need to be retrained. Students would have to adjust to a massive change in their curriculum, which would disrupt their education, and to what end? There is no evidence to suggest that aligning with an IB curriculum would help our PARCC scores, and since fewer than a quarter of our graduates can even hope to go to PMSA, while every high school our graduates are likely to go to – including Proviso East – uses the AP curriculum, it makes no sense to ‘align’ with PMSA and the IB curriculum. There is no benefit to the transition to justify the costs incurred, even on a purely notional level.
I do think we need to develop mechanisms for consistently measuring our performance in preparing our students for high school – I addressed this specific issue with Dr. Cavallo last fall, and while the answers I got were satisfactory, it was clear that the analysis is not something done formally and continuously. It should be. I also note that the results of his analysis were presented at the next board meeting, but the materials detailing the analysis he presented were not posted in the minutes, which they should have been.
4) D91 students’ standardized (PARCC) test scores have increased slightly over the past few years, but students continue to struggle with math in particular. What is the district currently doing to address this issue and what more, if anything, do you believe D91 should be doing? What do you think about PARCC scores and academic performance at D91?
Standardized testing in general and PARCC in particular are challenging even before we look at our scores. We currently find a curriculum ‘on the market’ and validate its worth by visiting schools using that curriculum and establishing its quality based on the results at those schools on PARCC scores, which takes time. The test changes, which impacts scores as well – our best benchmark is not the raw scores per se, but how we score relative to other schools over time. If every school we compare ourselves with drops 2 percentage points on the PARCC one year, that means something totally different than if only D91 drops 2 percent. Same argument applies to improvements. There is an ongoing, intensive effort to better implement our curriculum and identify gaps and struggling students which Dr. Cavallo is confident will bear fruit. After attending many board meetings where these issues have been discussed and corresponding with Dr. Cavallo to get myself up to speed on all the moving pieces – and there are many – I agree with the approach he and his team have taken, and as noted, the scores have begun to rise. There is no easy fix, but the board needs to monitor the efforts of the Superintendent, which they do, and require regular reporting on progress, which they do, and communicate that to the community, which they do not do well.
5) Over the past year, the D91 board has approved several measures to address a racial and economic achievement gap at the schools. How, if at all, would you engage with and continue this work?
This is incredibly thorny and complicated, and not unique to D91. First, it is a critical element of the boards work – to ensure that EVERY child gets the best education we can provide, and that means support. I would engage by first understanding how have we measured the impact of economic and racial factors in terms of achievement and then asking what else we needed to know in order to put together a plan to help those children impacted, whether that meant in class help, or some other kind of support. We need to know if what we are doing or plan to do has the best chance to actually help. Most of all, I would work with the board to better engage the community, especially people who may not have had their voices heard, or not be in circumstances where they could take the initiative to engage with the district by, say, attending a board meeting, and make sure we reach out to them and meet them where they are – within the bounds of privacy, and through the correct channels – to listen to them and understand their needs with regard to their child’s education. This plays directly into the role of parents above – we need to have mutual trust, and for that we need good communication and a commitment to do the right thing by the children of the district in every context – in school, in the community, and at home.
6) Enrollment at D91 was the lowest its been in at least six years at the start of this school year. Are you concerned about this? What is the district currently doing to attract students and what more, if anything, should the district be doing to retain and attract families?
Success is the best marketing. When my wife and I chose Forest Park as our home in 2006, the local schools were a key element of our decision process. All the schools have only improved since then, particularly 209, whose current board has a done a great job, and I hope continues the good work they started. People looking to find a good place to raise a family will see our success.
As for managing our workforce, because talking about enrollment is directly related to discussions about staffing levels, I have spent my career as an accountant, financial analyst, and now for the last few years, as a data scientist – I have learned the kinds of questions to ask when reviewing data. In this case, we are a small district, and as such, even a small change in enrollment will have a disproportionate effect. My question would be, is this a long term trend or within normal variance? Once we know that, we can better allocate resources. I am very conservative in this area – I helped build a consulting practice in Chicago with 15 outstanding team members, all of whom I hired and trained. There were times when work was slow, and I had employees ‘riding the bench’. Larger firms would have laid them off – I know, I worked for a larger firm for 7 years, and had to lay people off in the aftermath of the 2008 economic slowdown. Firing people is awful, especially good people, and it is expensive. People are where the value lies in a service organization, whether professional services or teaching. You hire and train them and build them into a high-functioning team, and they work wonders for you. In my work life, my team made us the fastest revenue growth division of our parent company, with zero voluntary turnover in thee years and the highest customer retention of our peers. We achieved this by only hiring when we absolutely had to, providing a great work environment for our people, training them properly, and only terminating people when there was no other choice, or based on their personal performance. The down time we absorbed was more than offset by being able to deploy trained and trusted people to clients immediately. In my opinion, employee turnover is a key performance indicator of a service organization – there is research backing this. Companies that have stable workforces tend to do better, all else equal.
Our school district is not a business, but the way we treat our staff is still significant. We have assembled a great teaching team, trained them well, and have never had a reduction in force or layoff. Our teachers have been and continue to do the difficult daily work of teaching our kids, and sure, our test scores could be better in some areas, but they have been improving thanks to the hard work the teachers and students are putting in. There is no ‘magic bullet’ for raising test scores, but there is one for lowering them – staff turmoil. If we get a reputation as the kind of district that fires people on a whim, the first people to leave will be the best people, and we will have a difficult time attracting good teaching talent, and our kids will suffer. We built a great team. We should not destroy it through shortsightedness.
While it is certainly possible that demographic changes could cause us to restructure, that should be something we plan for and handle responsibly – through retirements, natural attrition, etc. I do not foresee a circumstance where we would ever be so poorly managed and led that we had to do layoffs.
7) What other issues are important to you as a school board candidate? How would you advocate for them as a board member?
The district needs to use the tools we have to make better, more well-informed decisions. To the degree we have empirical data, understand and use it to inform our decision process. The enrollment question above is a perfect example – we cannot just look at enrollment for the last 6 years and say ‘well, here’s what we do!’. We need to understand the broader environment – what level of staffing is sustainable, given a certain enrollment? What demographic information do we have about our town that can inform this? The district monitors property taxes because that is where the money comes from. What other data points are out there that we could use? Real estate transactions are public record. Most if not all districts publish enrollment data. What do we look like relative to other districts around us? Answering these questions takes data and analysis, and it is important to approach such analysis methodically. Right now, when I ask Dr. Cavallo for information on a given subject, he goes away for a day or two and presents me with an answer after gathering the data. I think the district needs to do far more and more consistent data gathering and analysis for the areas where we are challenged – enrollment and test scores, to name two.
This is last in my letter, but is as important as all the other factors under discussion – our school district is an integral part of the community, and needs to be accountable to all key stakeholders – parents, students, faculty, staff, government, and residents. Community engagement, even with those who do not have children in the schools, is important. The board has a moral and fiduciary duty to the entire community to be good stewards of the resources we have been entrusted with. Toward that end, I would do whatever I could when the opportunity presented itself to ensure the voices of all these stakeholders are heard, and careful consideration given to their needs in making board decisions.