“Slow and steady wins the race,” might be the new motto for Forest Park School District 91, as the district says it has been working on implementing curriculum and other practices to continue to improve, not only in proficiency, but also across the board. 

“The baby steps that we are putting in are going to be worth it because we are going slow to go fast,” said Supt. Elizabeth Alvarez, who told Forest Park Review that the district saw a growth in proficiency in the Illinois Report Card for 2023. 

The report card, released each year, offers a look into students’ academic achievements at the state, district, and school level. 

According to the Illinois Report Card, the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, ESSA, requires states to assess learning standards for English/Language Arts, math, and science. 

Proficiency can be measured in various ways, but the state report card reports it as ‘the students” success in achieving levels within standardized testing that indicate proficiency, in the subject matter. 

The district’s highest rate of improvement in proficiency was in English language arts, where their score increased by 3.9%, going from 29.2% in 2022 to 33.1% in 2023. 

“Good things take time,” Alvarez said. “Right away you can dismantle something that is good pretty quickly, but in order to build something, the pyramids were not built in a day, so this is going to take time. I am giving it grace, I am being patient.” 

Proficiency also increased in mathematics, where, overall, the district increased by 3.2% from 2022 and in science, where there was a 1% improvement from 2022 to 2023. 

The highest improvement was credited to Forest Park Middle School, which saw their score in English language arts increase by 12.6%, going from 17.1% in 2022 to 29.7% in 2023. 

An increase in proficiency is part of the reason the district was able to receive a “commendable” rating on the 2023 state report card, with all three schools, besides Garfield Elementary, receiving that designation. 

“I was excited, but I also know not to get too excited because designations can change,” Alvarez said, recalling her first initial reaction to the district’s score. 

After the district received the official letter at the end of October, which confirmed the designation, Alvarez could rejoice in the improvement of the school. 

The rating is the second highest on the State Board of Education’s four-category scale, indicating that each school has no underperforming student groups, a graduation rate greater than 67%, but whose performance is not in the top 10% of schools statewide.

According to past designations from the State Board of Education, the last “commendable” rating D91 received was in 2018, before dropping down to a “targeted” rating, a school in which one or more student groups is performing at or below the level of the “all student” group in the lowest performing 5% of schools, for the following years, not including 2021, when the summative designation was waived.  

In math, the district also saw an improvement, going from 15.4% in proficiency to 18.6%. 

When it came to the Illinois Assessment of Readiness, IAR, Alvarez said data showed that D91 needs to find ways to reach their Black student population, also their largest student population, so that they can also continue to show improvement. 

According to the Illinois Report Card, more white and Hispanic students at D91 “met expectations,” compared to their Black counterparts, who saw a dip in their ELA, going from 18.8% in 2022 to 17.4% in 2023.  

While Black students make up the largest student demographic in D91, 42.5%, the district is composed of primarily White teachers: 81.9%. 

“Since I’ve come here, the teachers of color have gone up,” Alvarez said, adding students have expressed their desire for more diversity in the faculty. “Are we where we want to be? No. Particularly with having Black teachers, we have very few.” 

Because studies have shown that students learn better from teachers who look like them, the district hopes to increase their faculty diversity, especially Black teachers, who only make up 6.9% of teachers in the district. 

Alvarez said she was not sure why more teachers of color are not choosing D91, adding the pool of applicants is usually composed of white teachers. Hoping to continue to launch the district forward, Alvarez said, their best bet to attract teachers of color is by word of mouth and by creating an inviting environment. She said she hopes teachers of color will see that the district is a great place to be. 

Alvarez, who joined the district in 2021, said a goal of hers was to increase the district’s rating in special education, which was accomplished after the district received an improved score compared to the previous year: 48.37% in 2023 to 2022’s score of 31%.

When it came to emerging English learners, Alvarez told Forest Park Review, that the district wants to get ahead of the pack and improve on their program as the population demographics can change in the future. 

When compared to the state data, D91 has 6.2% fewer English learners, students whose primary language is not English. 

“We don’t have a high percentage,” Alvarez said. “Our enrollment for emerging bilinguals is very small. So, for our emerging bilingual students, we are focusing on it because we know that if we don’t do that now, there is going to be an influx with immigrants, refugees, they may choose to come to Forest Park.” 

That decision might pay off in the future as the district has seen a slight increase in English learners from previous years, as shown from their increase in 5.4% in 2021 to this year’s 8.4%. Despite the increase in students whose first language isn’t English, the district has maintained itself below the state’s average, which for 2023 was 14.6%. 

The district also saw an increase in the percentage of students who are “proficient,” meaning they are able to meet the standard and demonstrate essential knowledge and skills in the Illinois Science Assessment. 

In 2022, the district had 35.2% of students meeting that level versus the 40.6% of students who received a “proficient” score in 2023. 

“I was really excited that they were just at the nip of the state,” Alvarez said. “We are going a lot more in showing and connecting the dots between science, technology, engineering, arts and math.” 

Also added to this year’s curriculum is a four-week pilot curriculum program exposing students to AI. 

“There is a lot within that curriculum to make sure our children are exposed to it and are ready to go when it comes to high school and beyond,” Alvarez said.