District 91 Superintendent Dr. Elizabeth Alvarez stands for a photo outside the Forest Park School District building on Monday, November 1, 2021, in Forest Park, Ill. | ALEX ROGALS/Staff Photographer

The first step of Dr. Elizabeth Alvarez’s ambitious plan to shape the future of Forest Park School District 91 — to stem the exodus of students, bridge the gaps in student equity, retain high-quality educators, improve achievement and restore pride in the community — is to be brutally honest about the present.

The district’s enthusiastic superintendent is two months into her first school year in charge of the district’s 700-some students and nearly 200 staff, and while numbers have been harder to come by than the data-driven Alvarez would like, those that are available paint a grim picture.

Enrollment in the district is a fraction of what it could be and has been, and even families who send their students to D91’s schools as preschoolers or kindergartners are leaving the district as their kids age. Racial learning gaps are glaring and troubling, especially in a majority Black district, with Black students testing at a starkly lower clip than their white counterparts. And enthusiasm for the district among Forest Parkers is at best non-existent and at worst openly derisive of their schools’ ability to nurture the next generation.

Despite that, Kyra Tyler, District 91’s school board president, sat with her fellow board members in mid-October and listened to Alvarez outline her vision, a five-year strategic plan that remains a work in progress, and came away as hopeful as ever about the future of the district. 

There are on-the-ground changes that will need to be made and difficult discussions about curriculum, student support and the nuts-and-bolts of education, but first and foremost the district, Tyler included, was looking for a booster to replace Louis Cavallo after his 14-year tenure came to an end in the spring.

And in the relentlessly energetic and impassioned Alvarez, Tyler and the rest of the community seem to have found someone who will, if nothing else, shout from the rooftops about the prowess of her schools, teachers and students.

“That was a gigantic goal of ours, to have somebody at the top who is saying to everybody, and believes it, that we have something special here,” Tyler said. “Who would hire somebody who wasn’t 100% a champion for their district? Why would we miss out on that opportunity?”

Rebuilding enrollment

Alvarez’s five-year strategic plan, first unveiled to the community at a school board meeting Oct. 14, is heavily reliant on historical data that, Alvarez said, was frustratingly hard to come by. For whatever reason, even basic information like enrollment data seems to have vanished from the district’s archives, a problem Alvarez said will be remedied during her tenure.

But it is generally agreed that in the heyday of Forest Park’s schools, not too terribly long ago, the total number of students in kindergarten through eighth grade was 1,000-plus. In the five most recent years, data Alvarez said was pulled from state sources, enrollment peaked at 837 students in the 2017-18 school year and plummeted to 664 total students in 2020-21. That number has bumped up slightly, to 704, this school year.

That’s led to small class sizes across the district — not the worst thing in a pandemic when social distance is paramount — but also a tough-to-ignore sense that school-aged kids in Forest Park are getting their learning elsewhere. (The answer of exactly where is a piece of data Alvarez and the board say they would like but do not have.)

More concerning, student cohorts shrink as the students age, meaning that a group of students who start kindergarten together grows smaller and smaller as those students advance grade levels.

Low enrollment, independent of anything else, is not necessarily a bad thing. But the lack of consistency that students experience as they age in Forest Park is a problem, Tyler and Alvarez agreed.

“It’s hard on kids when they’ve lived here and they’ve grown up with kids and they’ve gone to school with them and suddenly their classmates are gone,” Tyler said at the Oct. 14 board meeting. 

“People are happy with our early childhood (education), and they should be. There’s some really great things happening there,” Alvarez said in an interview. “But there has to be something done where there’s more consistency. I know I do, as a parent, I wanted to see consistency when it comes to friendship, socialization and academics. It all kind of goes hand-to-hand.”

Grant White Intermediate Elementary School in Forest Park. File photo

District 91’s schools have operated as grade-level centers for several years, with students attending one school from kindergarten through second grade, another building from third through fifth grade, and finally the middle school for sixth, seventh and eighth. But Alvarez said the built-in transitions from one building to another could be inadvertently giving parents the opening they need to move their kids out of the district each time a “break” occurs.

Assessing the grade-level centers and potentially shifting away from that model, Alvarez said, is not out of the realm of possibility.

“I think anything could be on the table because we really need to be strategic about bringing enrollment up and what’s best for children and families here,” Alvarez said. “I don’t want to take it off the table. It might be something to consider.”

Then there is the other possible culprit for D91’s flagging enrollment: the high schools. Public school students in Forest Park attend Proviso high schools in District 209, and while any evidence to prove that challenges in that district are chasing families either out of town or into private schools is anecdotal, it’s not a theory Tyler or Alvarez dismissed.

“It’s in the back of my head, of course, and yes, from speaking to families, I’ve heard that,” Alvarez said.

The new D91 superintendent said she has not yet spoken with her colleague in D209, James Henderson, but said she would like to, and she was careful not to make assumptions about Proviso high schools before having a conversation with him.

Tyler, for her part, said D209’s challenges were out of her and the board’s control, and said that no matter what happens when students leave D91, the district’s job is to prepare them the best way possible before they reach the end of eighth grade.

“Ultimately our job here is to prepare students in their foundational years of education,” Tyler told the Review. “People have their reasons (for leaving). We can’t control that. What we’re hoping to do is give them a reason to stay.”

“What happens in 209 is what happens in 209. What happens in 91 happens in 91.”

Test scores are weak

The other data point that troubled the district’s leaders concerned the students’ performance assessments, for which the most recent numbers came from 2019. Among all students, they paint a picture that in some ways matches the enrollment decline.

Between 40 and 50 percent of students meet or achieve state standards — based on the Illinois Assessment of Readiness — in both English Language Arts (ELA) and math as third graders, but those numbers plummet in later years, down to 12 percent in ELA and just 4 percent in math by sixth grade, before rebounding modestly in seventh and eighth.

The cause of the overall decline is again difficult for Alvarez or Tyler to pinpoint, but it is deeper within those trends that a larger, perhaps easier to diagnose problem exists.

Test scores are not the end all number by which a school, or student, should be measured, but 26 percent of Black third-grade students meet or exceed the state standard in ELA and 21 percent do the same in math. Their white counterparts are at 57 and 75 percent, respectively. And the trend remains as students age.

“That was something really hard for me to see, when I got that,” Alvarez said. “What is happening here that we’re not making the mark?”

Forest Park District 91 School Board President Kyra Tyler. File photo

“That data did not surprise me,” Tyler said. “It’s not surprising but what I will say is I think there were very mixed feelings within our community of people feeling shocked and upset. They should be. Everyone should be concerned about the chasm that exists, and it seems to fall along racial lines.”

“What I think about it is that sunlight is the best disinfectant,” Tyler said. “You’ve got to do something about it — why would we hide from this data? Why would we pretend that Black boys, in particular, are not due the level of success that their white counterparts are receiving? It’s something that we are keenly focused on.”

To take early steps to address the problem, Alvarez has focused on talking with students themselves, and she said much of what she’s heard has been about the struggle of focusing on school during the COVID-19 pandemic and the trauma that has befallen so many families, especially Black and Latino ones.

“Some of our scholars are saying, ‘we need time to really decompress some of the stuff that’s happening at home,’” Alvarez said. “And when you’re able to do that, and it’s safe, it allows them to be better at academics.”

“I want you to feel safe to tell you what’s happening in my life or tell you what is occurring within. That’s huge. That’s really huge.”

Already this school year, Alvarez said she’s implemented more focused social-emotional learning and offered access to counseling resources, including partnerships with a pair of integrated tools: the Second Step Program and Care Solace. It’s part of a belief she and Tyler share that academic achievement only comes when students feel safe and comfortable in the school environment.

“It’s a hard thing to achieve but it’s necessary,” Tyler said. “Everything is up for discussion and an intense look. It’s hard. I don’t want teachers to feel like they’re not doing their jobs, I don’t want administrative staff feeling like they’re not doing their jobs. Everybody deserves better, particularly those students.”

Ambitious goals

Tyler made a point of describing Alvarez’s plan as a “draft” at the Oct. 14 school board meeting, and already some changes have been made. For one, the target date of 2025 has been pushed back a year, to 2026, to allow a full five years for the district to reach its goals.

And those goals are “ambitious,” the word Alvarez said she’s heard from her own staff members when she’s shared them.

The goals include 80 percent of students reaching state standards in ELA and math at all grade levels, 95% staff retention, 98% student attendance, a 15% increase in enrollment, and 100% parent participation in some school committee.

“Seeing that plan, I can imagine, was just like, ‘whoa, we’re going to do all of that?” Alvarez said of the response she’s received. “The feedback has been more of, ‘how, Liz?’”

To begin, board members have been touring classrooms with Alvarez to watch the instruction in-person, what Alvarez is calling instructional core visits, and Tyler said her biggest takeaway, and the thing that has her most optimistic for the future, is what she’s seen from the district’s students during those visits.

“We have great teachers. We’ve known that. We have great administrators,” Tyler said. “But what we don’t talk about is our kids are incredible. … To see it and experience it was inspiring and made me really proud.”

Alvarez has asked school leaders to respond to her goals by the end of the school year, at which point more concrete steps to move the district closer to its targets can be taken. Right now, she said, they are regularly checking on milestones for growth, although she said that progress is measured only in-house.

But while she’s not backing down from the target numbers she presented, she did admit that progress would be a win no matter how much is made.

“If we don’t reach those goals but we’re still showing growth, I’m sticking to that story of growth.”

Growth in Forest Park’s schools would undoubtedly be a victory for Alvarez and, she and Tyler believe, the community as well. Alvarez’s job is not explicitly to be an advocate for the village of Forest Park but necessarily those two things go hand in hand. And it’s a job that Alvarez takes on willingly and happily, at least for now, when there is nothing but the future in front of her.

“People want others to see our schools as a destination site. And if it is a destination site, it [becomes a place] where people want to move and have children,” she said. “And so, when you start seeing an increase and then the growth, people talking about that and saying, ‘I want to go there’ and all of a sudden you start seeing more children come here, and choosing to come here, and parents wanting that.”

“That’s a good thing. That’s a really good thing. It also comes out as people saying the best place to live, because of the schools, is Forest Park. What a great thing to see.”