By Nona Tepper
A thin crowd gathered at Forest Park Middle School on May 15 for District 91 officials' annual "State of the District" presentation, which outlines the current and future state of Forest Park schools.
"It's all about continuous improvement," Superintendent Louis Cavallo told the crowd. "At D91 we have a process, and it's a process that works pretty well. We set measurable goals and we work toward achieving them. Those goals are based on these core values. And where did these core values come from? From the community."
Cavallo highlighted the state's rating of all D91 schools this year as commendable — the second-highest rating the Illinois State Board of Education awards — as well as the district's equity work. He noted that the D91 Board of Education and administrators have spent the last year undergoing training from the National Equity Project, an Oakland-based organization that aims to help eliminate academic achievement gaps between majority and minority students.
As a result of that training, the D91 board wrote and launched an equity imperative that charges district officials to consider how all new measures will impact those who have been historically and systematically marginalized in society. The board also made an effort to reach out to parents by hosting Engage Café monthly coffee meetups. Administrators met together once a month to discuss equity issues in the schools, adopting Indigenous Peoples Day in place of Columbus Day, committing themselves to hiring more teachers of color, reflecting on how to make registration more accessible, and more. Next year, all staff at D91 — from teachers to bus drivers to custodians — will receive training from the National Equity Project.
"It's more than just an equity imperative; it's a moral imperative; it's the right thing to do," Cavallo said. "It impacts how everyone interacts with kids and how everyone believes what kids can do. If they don't have a belief that all kids can achieve at high levels, they won't."
The district has also partnered with River Forest District 90 and the West Cook YMCA to start the Power Scholars Academy, a summer school program that provides academic and social support to at-risk students. Cavallo said Power Scholars supports D91's academic goal of increasing its math and English Language Arts scores by 10 percent by next year.
"The state has been stagnant; they literally have not budged. The state scores have stayed the same for the last four years while ours have crept up little by little. But a little is not good enough for us," Cavallo said.
D91 installed math coaches in every grade level this past year, reorganized the middle school schedule and committed to training teachers on formative assessing, so they can feel comfortable intervening immediately to target student needs.
Officials have also mapped D91's curriculum across grade levels and schools to make sure it is consistent and that there are no content gaps.
Next school year, teachers will continue to receive professional development in formative assessment of students, as well as teaching strategies that help students understand and solve math problems in multiple ways. The district will also add afterschool programming for its primary students and two new sections of preschool.
"The research is really, really clear on how much better kids who have a preschool opportunity do in school, and also should over time boost our test scores. It's also very clear through the research how much it does for those marginalized groups," Cavallo said, noting that the additional sections of preschool could also help stymie the district's declining enrollment, which he attributed to declining birth rates in Cook County and the village's supply of rental housing.
"We're in a competitive market, right? There are lots of school districts in a small geographic area. People have a choice as to where they live, and if there's housing available, we want them to come here, so we want to make our schools as attractive as possible."
Ed Brophy, assistant superintendent of operations, noted that D91's low enrollment has also impacted how much money the state gives the district under the new evidence-based funding model, which the state adopted in August 2017. He said the new formula gives the district just $1,000 in new revenue each year and does not account for how many buildings are in the district. The state calculates that the district needs 1.77 buildings based on its enrollment, according to the formula, and D91 has five. It also stated that D91 is funded at 156 percent of "adequacy," the state's term for how much it should cost to provide a high-quality public education.
"The district is at a high percent of adequacy because the formula does not account for the number of schools that we have and that's very important for our community to know," Brophy said.
He added that if the state passes a bill to impose a property tax freeze, it would negatively impact the district's finances.
"We don't see a lot of new revenue from the state from the evidence-based funding model; that would severely impact our district finances," Brophy said. "So for a district like ours, this would be very critical to our finances."
Cavallo said the district needed to increase its test scores as a way to drive enrollment, but also called on parents to talk up the schools to neighbors. He noted that the district recently also hired a new public relations manager to help promote the district.
"Every month we are trying to promote positive aspects in the school district. You've seen this not only in the ads that are run on social media but also the special events, like Project Kindness, the 3K race," said Scott Dunnell, the district's communications manager, adding that next year the district would focus on promoting individual D91 schools and programs.
"We've tried to get more expansive in this first year to create more of a brand equity. So that the messages [will] be positive, they need to be regular and consistent."
Board member Eric Connor said he thought this strategy would help combat the middle school's poor reputation. He also called for parents to write positive reviews of the school district on sites that families use to shop for homes.
"The middle schools always started out, 'It was a bucket of blood over there and the discipline was running wild,' and so there was a principal brought in who was a disciplinarian and really improved the discipline in the middle school. Then it was the scenario out there, 'Well we got all these kids coming in from Chicago who are not residents who are taking advantage of our schools. But our schools are [supposedly] bad, so why would they?'" Connor said.
"There's a lot of rumors out there that persist in the community by people who generally don't have kids in the school. I don't know hardly any parent who has a child in the school that doesn't believe we have a really good school system."