HOBART — For three consecutive years, the Indiana Department of Education has rated River Forest Jr-Sr High School a D.
This is the first year of a process to turn around the school academically.
River Forest Superintendent Steve Disney, in his third year as superintendent, said the first step was bringing in a new principal to make changes and improve the school grade. Last year, Randall Horka was in charge of the junior and senior high school. This year, Horka is principal at the middle school, and Alexander J. Brandon is the new high school principal.
Disney said he did an analysis of the district, looking at academics, facilities and finances.
“We identified several issues,” he said. “We obtained $400,000 in federal funding and a $100,000 Common School Fund loan. We used that money to gut our computer infrastructure in every building and upgrade it. We are now completely wireless. We completed that in the spring.
“Part of improving the instructional education is by updating the technology. The kids are digital natives. We decided to go with Chromebooks. We went from zero Chromebooks to 700 of them. We are halfway there to getting one-to-one computer access,” Disney said.
The school district held its first technology boot camp this summer with about 60 teachers attending a three-day intensive workshop.
River Forest also successfully passed a general fund referendum in May 2015, boosting its operating budget. It asked voters to approve a measure to pay 42 cents per $100 of assessed valuation. That meant a homeowner with a house valued at $100,000 would pay about $150 more per year. The impact is approximately $82 more annually on a house valued at $75,000.
Overall, the district expects to generate about $609,000 each year for seven years, based on River Forest’s tax collection rate of 87 percent.
Disney said the district received its first payment in June and the operating budget is healthy, eliminating the need for cuts.
School leaders also are beefing up the curriculum, increasing the amount of professional development and adding programs.
Disney and Brandon said they have added more career and technical classes at the high school and established an Industrial Maintenance Program in cooperation with Vincennes University and ArcelorMittal.
“Not every kid is going to college and getting a four-year degree,” Disney said.
“There was really no CTE (Career Technical Education) program here. The Gary Career Center wasn’t successful, and we pulled out of that. We’ve partnered with Merrillville to offer some classes. We have five students from Griffith who are in the CTE program. Some of our students are taking classes in Merrillville.”
A couple of years ago, River Forest and the Lake Station Community Schools partnered to create an Alternative School. This year, about 27 students are enrolled in that program to earn their credits and graduate. There are 12 from River Forest and 15 from Edison Jr-Sr High School in Lake Station.
Disney said Brandon is bringing some fresh ideas to the district, including focusing on at-risk students and creating an intense credit recovery program. “We are tracking kids through graduation,” Disney said.
When Disney began at the school, the graduation rate was 72 percent. He said it is “creeping up” and now is at 80 percent, and they are working hard to increase the graduation rate.
Brandon said he intends to focus on two areas: school climate and culture, and effective instruction. He said he’s working closely with the state outreach coordinator, Jennifer Kwiatkowski, to improve instruction.
For the 2016-17 school year, River Forest has a student enrollment of 1,530 students, up 20 students from the previous year. Of that number, 460 students are enrolled at the high school. The school district has a free/reduced-cost lunch rate of 57.2 percent.
Brandon said 47 percent of the students are Hispanic, about 44 percent are white and 5 percent are black. He said the district is doing more to reach out to its Hispanic population.
River Forest High School algebra teacher Whitney Stanfill, who is in her second year of teaching and previously worked at the Alternative School, said she likes what she’s seeing and already has completed several hours of professional development.
“The new principal is very involved,” she said.
River Forest freshman Joscelyn Tolar moved to Hobart from Ohio a few weeks ago. “The teachers seem to really care about you here,” she said.