Note: this story was been updated on Feb. 2
Dr. Elizabeth Alvarez is the new superintendent for the District 91 elementary school district. She was unanimously elected by the school board and announced to the public on Jan. 30.
Her contract runs from July 2, 2021 to July 30, 2024.
Alvarez comes from the Chicago Public Schools and as pointed out by board president Kyra Tyler, is the first female and first Latinx superintendent for D91.
She was a middle school teacher for 13 years, and an instructional math and science coach for three.
Alvarez served as an assistant principal for two years, principal for six, and most recently the chief of schools for 18 schools.
In an interview with the Review on Jan. 31, Alvarez said she’s known about Forest Park for a long time, both as an educator and because family members used to live in Oak Park. She’s spent time in town, getting to know the community, enjoying ice cream and tea (she’s a tea drinker) and having nice meals.
“There is a really nice feeling of home in Forest Park,” said Alvarez, who lives in Chicago, about a 20-minute drive away, with her husband. Once COVID restrictions are lifted, though, she said she’ll be everywhere. Alvarez is looking forward to being involved in the community.
“First of all, I am very outgoing,” Alvarez said. “So I want to be part of it. I want to be present. I want to get to know people. Hear them out about what they love. I also want to hear about what they’re hoping for, and I’ve only become a better leader by listening and learning.”
Being part of the town is important to Alvarez, too, because the second someone from Forest Park talks about the town, the sense of community is evident in how they describe the environment.
“The way everyone kind of speaks about that climate and culture, the feel of school, the community … you don’t necessarily see that immediately or hear that immediately in other places,” Alvarez said. “It takes a lot of work, years of work, to do.”
Since the close-knit community seems to be there, said Alvarez, what needs to be done is to really hone in on instruction.
“Already, people seem vested in the school, even people who don’t send their children there. So that says a lot to me, that there are a lot of stakeholders who are going to have their input to say, this is how important our school is. So that’s a huge strength that can take years to build.”
The curriculum, she said, is already strong in many ways, but that’s where the focus needs to be. Part of that, she said, is a clear and honest look at the data.
“The part that I would like to see is the conversation pieces that we’re having with curriculum, the conversation pieces we’re having with data and assessments, because many times people tend to be come defensive about their own data,” Alvarez said.
That data, she said, “belongs to all of us.”
Alvarez said she doesn’t want to “over test” children, but monitoring progress is essential. She compared it to the way doctors monitor our health to make sure we’re on the right track. Or dentists regularly see how our teeth are doing.
“We have to monitor to see how much we are learning,” Alvarez said. Then we find gaps where we can focus. That way, nobody falls behind. Tiering is a way to do that, while making sure children at all levels are getting what they need to be successful.”
Her volunteer time, she said, is spent mentoring future leaders for the Latino leadership pipeline; she is currently the president of the Illinois Association of Latino administrators and superintendents.
She is the mother of two grown children.
“I hold the noble title of educator dear to my heart,” Alvarez said.
Her core values, she said, revolve around “bring a sense of belonging in every aspect of schooling.”
As a young child, she said she longed for the feeling of belonging but never felt it in grammar school or middle school. In high school, however, she met teachers who lit her spirit once more.
“They showed me what the power of a teacher can do. They reminded me of my potential, my work, and provided me with that sense of belonging that I longed for. When you feel you belong, security guards, staff, clerks, aides, teachers, parents, and especially our students, then you are able to put forth your best in all you do, and you believe in yourself. You feel safe, and nurtured where your uniqueness contributes to the diversity of a thriving diverse learning community.”
The sense of belonging, Alvarez said, creates an environment where mistakes are expected and accepted, allowing children to experiment and grow.
“I believe in the power of an educator in the lives of children. I believe in celebrating the whole child. I believe in acknowledging and celebrating our diversity. I believe in positive school climate and culture, that it starts with great leadership with our principals, assistant principals and our teachers.”
Coming into a new district during COVID presents some challenges, such as not getting to meet all the children or staff initially. But Alvarez talked about the positives too. In her experience in her current job, she said she’s seen teacher engagement and relationships burgeon in ways they never did before.
“I have seen teachers who have never spoken to each other before, like emergent bilingual teachers, or our diverse learning teachers, or counselors, nurses … they are really having conversations about what is meaningful and purposeful. Which, in person, didn’t necessarily happen.”
She brought up a concept that D91 teachers have talked about in previous interviews with the Review; that suddenly, with all the COVID-related changes, experienced teachers and principals feel like first year teachers all over again.
“And what do we do in our first years?” asked Alvarez. “We look for support. And that’s exactly what happened during remote learning. We were reaching out to all of our support systems, and we started gaining because of it, and becoming smarter because of it. So that’s something I hope, no, I know, will not change.”
The drawbacks of learning remotely, of course, are obvious. You miss something not talking face-to-face.
“To sit down and actually understand what it means to work in a group … that’s so important,” Alvarez said. Being with adults is another thing children are lacking right now.
“Children are missing out on the interactions of adults, and how we move and how we model for them,” Alvarez said.
As for being the first woman to serve as superintendent in the district, Alvarez said it’s a second first for her, as she was the first female principal of a school in Chicago. While she feels pride in being a role model for both girls and boys, she said first and foremost, the job is the most important thing.
“Honestly, I just saw the work as the work. I didn’t think of being the first female or Latina until people brought it to my attention,” Alvarez said.
But she’s glad, she said, that children, both boys and girls, can look to her and see the rode she’s taken.
“They can say, ’Hey, this is what is possible,’ and they walk out of there feeling that I provided a path. It’s making sure that they know the sky’s the limit, honestly. And I could not be where I am now without those types of mentors.”
Alvarez said she thinks she’ll fit in well, because not only did board members describe the town as “quirky” in the interviews, but she describes herself that way too.
She said she’s a White Sox fan, and she’s often seen around wearing her baseball cap with pride. She’s a huge Lord of the Rings fan and enjoys Star Wars too.
She said her quirkiness lends itself to fun, even when kids are learning. During poetry week at previous schools, for example, she’d ask students to keep a poem in their pocket at all times, and sometimes she’d ask them to pull it out and read it.
“Those kind of things make me excited,” said Alvarez, “like children getting excited about poetry.”
Alvarez’ official start date is July 1, but she will begin now, talking to stakeholders and learning about the district.
Board member Katherine Valleau said she’s “over the moon” with the hiring of Alvarez. “She personally blew me away,” Valleau said. “Welcome to Forest Park. We are a weird and quirky town, and we’re very happy to have you.”
Board member Mary Win Connor, who will not be running for reelection in April, said of everything she’s done in her 17 years on the board, “this was the most important.”
Retiring Superintendent Lou Cavallo couldn’t attend the Zoom meeting, but a statement he wrote was read during the meeting.
“I have come to care deeply about the district and community and am very pleased to have such an outstanding individual who has been chosen to lead this community … I am sure she will do an outstanding job and will lead D91 to a bright future,” said Cavallo.