Improving on 'excellent'

Opinion: Editorials

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Here's our short list of things that make locals sit up and howl: Propose a tall building. Change parking regulations and rates. Chlorinated water divided into lanes (in Oak Park and River Forest, at least). And, drumroll please, messing with foreign language instruction for children under 5 feet, 3 inches.

River Forest's public elementary schools, District 90 officially, have been working boldly over several years to improve a school system widely perceived to already be excellent. This has been a thoughtful, inclusive and innovative process based on a rare willingness to be self-critical.

Part of that self-assessment has been in measures of test scores against state averages. Yes, River Forest standardized test scores are exemplary, but school officials said last week that math test scores have declined slightly over the past two years and they want to fix it. Additionally, new state standards rightly have shifted learning emphasis to a more rigorous and complex thought process that assesses more than rote problem-solving. And part of that self-assessment is recognition that River Forest, like every other district, has a gap in achievement that has racial and economic aspects.

So an improvement plan has been proceeding apace. New curriculum has been implemented in different subject areas. A new instructional pedagogy called "universal learning design" is being implemented which requires buy-in from teachers and has, inevitably sparked some pushback from a minority of faculty. There is planning related to changing the grading system since the old A-F model does not fully compute on what is now being measured.

But the school board meeting odometer finally jumped last week when the presentation was made on a proposal from the administration to the school board to shift Roosevelt Middle School to a block scheduling system that would clear considerably more time in the school day for math. And since school days aren't getting any longer, the reluctant conclusion is that foreign language instruction would need to be reduced. Not eliminated. Not brought down to fewer languages offered. But reduced.

And that got the attention of a good number of parents. That's good. This entire effort will be improved as more parents engage. Ralph Martire, school board president, did point out that any number of public meetings have been held on all aspects of the changes underway. He pointed to audio recordings of said meetings that parents can still listen to.

These are exciting days in River Forest's public schools. It is easy to drive change in a sub-standard school system. It takes courage and smarts to improve an already strong system. That's the ambition River Forest parents ought to embrace.

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