By Nona Tepper
Conversation centered on communication and community engagement at a District 91 candidate forum on March 6, hosted by the Forest Park Review and Chamber of Commerce. Seven candidates are vying for three open seats in the April 2 election.
"Although the school has recently done many good things, the academic level of our students is way below what we want to happen and that's probably the reason why people have left," said Daniel Gasse, who has two children in D91.
Gasse owns his own music business and holds a doctorate in education. He said he was inspired to run after feeling frustrated watching friends leave the district over the past decade "because they didn't trust the schools." He said it was "obvious" D91 had a student retention issue. At the beginning of the year, D91 reported its lowest level of enrollment in at least six years.
"Looking at the schools, just demographics, looking at the academic result, obviously the poorest performing school in the district is the middle school and guess what? It's because we have been draining the best students year after year," Gasse said. "We need to brag about the wonderful things we have, especially the preschool, the wonderful teachers, many other things, but we also need to increase the academic results."
Incumbent Shannon Wood, who has two kids in D91 and works as an accounting clerk, said it was "difficult" to understand whether the district had a retention problem because when people leave, they don't tell the district why. Low enrollment could be due to a variety of factors, she said, from economic reasons to uncertainty over high school.
"There are lots of reasons, but we don't know what they are, so I think that's hard to fix if we don't know why people are leaving," she said.
She believes the district is generally viewed in a positive light, with administration that is supportive of staff and "great" programs like the Power Scholars Academy, a free summer program for Forest Park and River Forest students that aims to staunch learning loss while offering academically at-risk students enrichment opportunities. She said D91 already does "a lot" with Proviso High Schools District 209, noting that superintendents from all feeder schools meet once a month, and the curriculum directors also meet regularly to talk about what is and isn't working at the schools.
"If we just got more of that positive information out, more people will believe in our schools," Wood said. "I haven't really heard many complaints — the test scores and math scores probably a few times. That definitely needs to improve."
Steve Rummel, a data scientist who has two kids in the schools, said he's heard the "claim" of retention problems at the district, but would be interested to see if it was actually a trend by collecting and analyzing enrollment data. He cautioned against making employment decisions based solely on anecdotes.
"If somebody is complaining about why do we spend so much money, the fastest way to drive talent away from us is to start making poor decisions with regard to trying to nickel-and-dime talented people," he said. "Is it possible we could start to pay too much? Yeah, we should pay attention to what the market rates are and so forth. I'm not saying that we should be profligate, but let's not be stupid."
Rummel believes parents generally like D91 teachers but that there is a split when it comes to the administration. He was inspired to run so he could help the board better communicate its happenings to the community, adding a formal community feedback system and posting more thorough board meeting minutes in a timely manner as examples.
"Whenever test scores come out, there's usually a very vocal component of people who lose their minds, but I don't think that reflects an actual groundswell of people," he said. "I think overall the community likes having good schools. I have yet to talk to anybody who has actually slammed the schools."
John Lyons III, who heads a manufacturing firm and has a daughter in the district, said he believes there is a top-down communication gap between the board and the parents. He said the board should look at district operations beyond simply the financials and, if the community truly questioned whether the district is "top heavy with administration," D91 should look into it.
"We need to evaluate it as a board and if it is happening, we need to take steps and measures to address that and communicate why," he said.
Greg Mitchell, vice president of a financial services firm who was appointed to the board in September, noted that the district was in "absolute marvelous shape" financially and was prepared to handle any funding changes brought at the state level. In terms of whether the district's declining enrollment was due to low birth rate or just stories of parents fed up and moving out of the district, he said the board cannot make decisions without data.
"We need to be able to say, 'This is what's happening,' and deal with both the academic side of it and the perception side," he said.
Katherine Valleau is a former D91 teacher and union head who left the district to open Exit Strategy Brewing Co. She said D91 should focus on what's making parents stay at the district, as opposed to wondering why people were leaving.
"How do we brag enough about ourselves to entice young families to stay? What are we offering them?" said Valleau, adding that, with effective leadership, an organization doesn't need too many administrators. She called for a district-wide inventory of leaders' roles and effect on schools.
"Doing a monthly intake of what is missing, what are we doing to address it, it's all incremental steps," she said. "Effective leadership makes the district run."
Monique Cotton Yancy is a benefits specialist who has had three children go through the D91 system, with one enrolled currently. She called for growing enrollment by focusing on the families currently in the district, analyzing why they're staying and other educational opportunities they're excited about.
"We're losing young families. Are they looking at districts that offer a language at a younger age? Are they looking at districts that have an arts program?" she asked. "If we look at what we're doing we can build on that."
Valleau said test scores can be beneficial for pinpointing students' academic needs but are generally a "very strict and tunnel-vision way to approach instruction" since they represent only a single data set, which she said doesn't account for external factors like student mood and home life. She praised the district's equity imperative as an "excellent" step toward a non-biased education system.
"There's an inherent bias that just exists within education, and I think the interesting thing that's happening is the identification of that, and it is not district specific. It's industry-wide and it's a social thing that we've got to address," she said.
Rummel likewise called standardized testing "narrow minded" because scores are easily influenced by external factors beyond the control of teachers. He also noted that, because Forest Park has such a small school district, "if three of our kids have had a bad day that's going to skew test scores in a significant way." He praised D91 teachers and technology for continuously evaluating and reacting to student needs.
"I take them with a big grain of salt," Rummel said of standardized test scores. "They are not something I personally focus on when I look at how my kids are performing in school. I would much rather work with the teachers who see my kids' performance on a day-to-day basis."
Mitchell said the best thing about standardized test scores is that they're standard, adding that it isn't realistic to expect the district to holistically and personally evaluate every child's subject matter understanding.
"If you have three kids who are having a bad day every single time we take that test, that's a pattern and we need to identify that pattern and, from a data perspective, see what we can do about it," he said.
Wood pointed to her own experience to illustrate that not all students test well, adding that several questions on standardized tests don't account for variance in students' home life.
"If the question is how many people sleep in this bed — two, three, four or five — in someone's home, they may share a bed with their siblings so their answer might be three, right? But the test is going to ask you for two because maybe your two parents sleep in that bed," she said. "So I think those questions don't help those kids at all and they don't show all they know."
Cotton Yancy agreed that tests are not created for every kid to succeed.
"It's not enough to say this is what happens in education," she said. "It's also to say what part do I play in this and what part can I play to fix this? Putting it out in the forefront, making it something you have to acknowledge, you have to notice, you have to get over."
Gasse said things have improved in the district since the board and administration have undertaken equity training. But he said the district must aim to achieve high test scores, since "we have to live with it and it's not going to go away."
Lyons called for improving test scores by building D91's curriculum so it better aligns with District 209.
"We've got to be doing more with 209," he said. "I know we've been doing a lot lately but you can never do too much, understanding 209's strategic vision and having that concur with 91's strategic vision because our kids are going to get to the point of 209."
Relationship with Proviso
Rummel said focusing on admitting all D91 students to Proviso Math and Science Academy (PMSA) is not the solution, since there's too many things out of the elementary school's control at the high schools and "we're not one unified school district and we cannot act like we are."
"What is better for us to figure out is how best for our kids to figure out whatever high school they end up going to, with the target being ideally 209, where they can succeed," he said.
Cotton Yancy has two kids currently enrolled in D209 and talked about strengthening the relationship between the schools by inviting kids from PMSA and Proviso East to attend D91's STEAM Night and inviting the Proviso East band to perform at events.
"Get the kids from there in our schools to show that it's not this big scary place when they leave elementary school," she said.