By Nona Tepper
District 91 Supt. Louis Cavallo pushed back against candidates' rhetoric from the recent campaign cycle, asserting that students are not leaving Forest Park schools because of the quality of education offered. At the beginning of this school year, D91 reported the largest drop in enrollment, and smallest number of students enrolled, in at least six years.
"Forest Park District 91, when our enrollment was 1,500, when our enrollment was 1,000, when it was 800, it has always had high mobility," Cavallo said at a board meeting on March 14. "That has more to do with the housing in Forest Park than anything, because people come and go. … We have kids coming and going a lot in District 91 and always have, at least since I've been here. People move around a lot when you have a lot of rental housing."
Cavallo estimated that half of the village's housing is rental housing and "this has never not been true." At the meeting, he said the most common reason people transferred out of the district was because they had moved from Forest Park. The districts that five students moved to are unknown, since no transfer records were requested, but Cavallo suspected they transferred into the Chicago Public School (CPS) system since CPS "notoriously doesn't give us records when we request them and seldom requests them from us. Kids just go to school there."
He added that sometimes requests will come "way late" from students who enroll out of state or at private schools.
But "most school districts, if the kid shows up and wants to enroll, we have to have that Illinois records request from them. We have to have the records and know that they're in good standing. If they don't have it with them, we request them from the school."
Of the students who didn't return to D91 during the 2018 school year, Cavallo said four moved to Oak Park, three moved to Broadview, three moved to Cicero, two were known to have moved to CPS, and one moved to Texas.
The district did not respond to an interview request about how many total students did not return to D91 that year.
But 23 percent of students didn't return to D91 due to residency concerns — "They tried to enroll and we said, 'You can't; you don't live here.' We caught it right at registration."
The second most common reason they did not return was custody issues, "where one parent gained or lost custody of a kid and the kid had to go where the other parent was." Eight percent were outplaced, 5 percent were placed in foster care that "required them to move where their foster home took them," and another 5 percent returned to their native countries of Turkey or India, Cavallo said.
Three percent of students did not return due to home health care concerns, or enrolled in homeschool, private school or were "grade advanced."
"We had two students who were homeschooled last year and they returned to us this year," Cavallo said at the meeting.
This is the first year the district tracked where students went when they left D91. He said he has a form that will, from now on, ask parents why they are leaving and where they are going.
But "looking at where they're going, we know that, at least a portion of them, are not moving out for better schools. That [applies to] very few kids in general," Cavallo said.
He added that the district's enrollment has nearly mirrored what an outside demographic firm determined every year's enrollment would be. At the beginning of this school year, 761 students, age preschool to eighth grade, were enrolled, down 59 from the school year before. The firm attributed declining enrollment to low birth rates in Cook County and a high supply of rental housing.
The study expired this year and Cavallo said he wanted to wait until next year to commission another study, in the event that this year's low enrollment was an outlier.
D91's enrollment "has absolutely nothing to do with school quality; it had everything to do with the type of housing, our birth rates in the county, and the capacity for new housing," Cavallo said, adding that he planned to present an idea to the board at the April 11 meeting about how to boost enrollment.
"We can try to do things, and we should, but we do have to not base things on feelings and innuendo and what we think might be happening because the data doesn't support that," he said.