Kathryn Birkett has spent 31 years as an educator in Indian Prairie Unit District 204.
But her first year as superintendent has proved to be her most difficult as she has learned to work directly with school board members, navigated a state finance fiasco and opened the 3,000-seat Metea Valley High School on schedule.
Birkett recently met with the Daily Herald to reflect on her first year at the helm of District 204 and the importance of reconnecting the district with the communities it serves, and to surprise you with what's currently playing in her iPod.
Q. You're a district lifer. How did you work your way to the superintendent's seat?
A. My road to the superintendency is fairly unique because I'd been in the same district for 30 years going into the job. I started as a teacher and have been an administrator in a lot of buildings and been in a lot of roles before I spent two years as deputy superintendent under Dr. (Stephen) Daeschner. So that's really how I came to be superintendent.
Q. How long was your eye on the prize before the position was offered to you?
A. I didn't have a grand plan in my life to become a superintendent. I really didn't have a grand plan to be an administrator either. I just wanted to be a great teacher. That's it. I wanted to be a great teacher.
Q. Did you achieve that?
A. It's fun. I was a teacher and a coach and I still have a group that I'm in touch with from those years when I did teach and we get together on a semi-regular basis, so that's pretty cool.
I love teaching and administration is an extension of that. But I certainly would recognize teachers among our ranks that are far better teachers than I would ever give myself credit for.
Q. Thirty years is a long time. What kept you in District 204 for 30 years until this job opened?
A. I have always really liked that community. I love the kids we serve. I love that staff. I have always felt like District 204 is a unique place and they certainly have given me a lot. So that all played into my willingness and very openness to stay.
Q. You accepted the job with an unresolved alleged sexual assault case involving three Gregory students hanging out there, a yet-to-be-finished Metea Valley High School and the local economy about to bottom out. What were you thinking?
A. Little did I know what was lying ahead either. I hoped I was well-prepared to handle that. I thought that I was, but I really was looking at this as a new start and a little change in direction. I knew communication was going to be a major focus and so as we got into it, that became the case.
In retrospect things have certainly settled down. Any student situation is always very difficult and I'm very heartfelt in that I want all our students to be successful however we can provide for that. Metea had a phenomenal year and that was a tremendous success on all fronts.
Q. What went right in the district during your first year?
A. Metea went right. Metea and Fischer (Middle School) both went right. Metea has gotten a lot of the press for being the new building, but often overlooked has been Fischer Middle School. We opened a seventh middle school very successfully and what that allowed us to do was to alleviate overcrowding. That definitely went right.
I think rebuilding communication with our constituents, certainly our transparency. I feel good about our relationships with our newspapers. I feel good about the time I spent with civic groups.
I joined the Naperville Rotary. That's been a wonderful thing to make great connections in that community. It's been great to get reconnected to the Aurora and Naperville chambers of commerce. I made 92 different appearances and connections throughout the year. I reconnected with all of our PTAs and with our Indian Prairie Parents Council. All that stuff needed to happen.
Q. You use the term reconnect, as if the district had become disconnected. Were the groups you visited with happy to have you back?
A. I would say all the groups have been extremely welcoming and that's been a really enjoyable part of my year, making those connections. I think there's been a lot of questions out there, wanting the ability to just ask a lot of questions and find out exactly what was going on and how things were operating in the district, and I think we've successfully done that. I think people feel that they've had their questions answered.
Q. What was the most frequently asked question?
A. At the beginning of the year, as I went to PTAs, all anyone wanted to talk about was H1N1. Remember that? We asked our parents many times to weigh in on some of the decisions that we've made. We asked them to give us ideas in the finance arena when we faced the state finance debacle. We also asked parents for feedback on the school calendar.
As the year progressed, every question I got was about money. By the time we got to January and were pretty clear on what the word was going to be from Springfield and that we were definitely going to have to make some cuts and adjustments, that became a great part of our work and it had to.
And student achievement. Parents are always focused on student achievement, as are we. So we also had many discussions about that.
This was also the first year for Professional Development Wednesdays, so many questions early on were about that. And as the year went on, parents gained a better understanding of what we were gaining, as did we. It's allowed us time to focus on individual students and our own staff's professional development and growth, and I believe that's extremely important. That's a huge predictor to how well our students do.
Q. What didn't go as planned or could have gone better during your first year?
A. The biggest change when you become a superintendent is that you're working with the board of education. So my biggest growth area was to work with the board; to work with seven citizens from our community. That continues to be my biggest growth area because I've done a lot of administrative things and I've led.
But when I reflect on the year, I can't pick out just one thing that went flat-out wrong. I feel fiance was tough, but I feel really, really good about the job we did in it. I'm very proud of our administrators and our board on that. I knew the state was in trouble and certainly we all learned as the year progressed how bad that trouble was. We cut $9 million and thought we were going to be fine. And then we had to cut another large amount of money to get to that $21.4 million. And I'm glad we did it when we did it because some districts waited. We weren't gonna wait. We were going to go there. The lack of payment from the state, obviously was one piece. And then finding out that exactly what was going to come out of Springfield in regard to funding for us - I don't know I'd call that a surprise as much as I'd call it a - dramatic experience that we were going to have to communicate to our community. And it was extremely important that we encouraged them to be involved in the solution to that. The surprise was the amount of time spent on finance because there is so much more we would love to spend our time on, but that just wasn't possible.
Q. What does the future look like from your seat?
A. We're hoping that we'll be able to bring some things back. We also are very cautious about what next year holds, so even if some money comes back into our coffers, the board and administration will have to wrestle with being smart with that money to best position ourselves for the future.
We were able to sit down and take a look, as a team. Administratively we could have said, "We all have to cut 15 percent so go do it." But we were very thoughtful about where were going to have to make reductions. Nobody wants to go after class size and no one wants to put teachers out of work. That was the most painful thing I did all year. That is, without a doubt, the most painful thing: Putting teachers and staff out of work and having to increase class sizes for our kids.
Every year our part-timers go and every year we rehire them. The staff we had to let go this year had no clue that would be coming this school year. To my knowledge I don't remember us ever having to do that.
In retrospect I probably could have done it a million times better. I don't know. That is really tough. I think I'm constantly working on communication and in retrospect I could always get better at how we work that through. I really have been very honest with staff as this was coming down the pike from the state to say this is painful, tough decision will have to be made. I hope I'll be better at being a superintendent in Year Two.
Q. You've used the phrase "new normal" dozens of times in recent months. What does that mean?
A. I keep telling the staff that this is our new normal. For now this is our new normal and we are operating in a new normal. The new norms that we're operating within have created a new normal for us. And I have to give kudos to the association and teacher population.
This was painful and to go through an entire $21.4 million in cuts and the one controversy that came out was about music. And we know that is a feather in our hat, an area where we have excelled as a district and we knew that would be tough. Kudos to many of the people who worked with us to come to a compromise position. But when you consider we cut $21.4 and there weren't any major controversies, I consider that a moral victory.
Q. What was your favorite interaction with a student this year?
A. I've got two.
In September I was at the Metea Valley home opener. I was standing with Jim Schmid and some parents and some kids came up to talk to Jim. He points at me and says, "Do you guys know who this is?" and of course these two kids couldn't have cared less. He said, "This is my boss. That's the superintendent. That's the big cheese." So these two immediately pulled me aside and told me to get on that pool (which, at the time was not yet ready for use by Metea Valley students) and they had their own agenda and they were very honest about what they wanted to see. "C'mon lady," one of them told me. My favorite interactions are always with kids.
The other involved two young men who were juniors at Waubonsie Valley. We had gone public with our austerity plan of $21.4 million and these two young men were extremely articulate. They're just fantastic kids and we've got a million of them. They wanted to talk about fee increases and how they would help their friends whose families just couldn't do it. We've assured them we're going to make that work, but they gave me anecdotes of things that happened on their teams where they bought cleats for another kid. Those are conversations that just - if I could have just put those guys in my pocket and taken them on the road to talk to all of our groups. You see, these guys are just concerned about their teammates. They just wanted to be sure we were going to support kids staying involved. They wanted to get to the top. They were very astute about needing to talk to someone who could make things happen.
Q. That's a mature situation for a high schooler to put himself in.
A. Our kids are so much smarter than we are. I've known that since I was an elementary principal. I had kindergartners who could run circles around me in many instances. I love kids.
The kids come up with ways to help each other, certainly more so than when I was in school. They're open to walking right in to administration and saying, "I've got a good idea." That's the climate you want to create in all your buildings. I love that. They recognize there's someone who can make things happen on a district level.
Q. Have your 31 years in the district changed your perception of the district?
A. No. If anything my perspective has made me feel better about the district because I've seen so many great people step up in really difficult situations. This has been very tough. I think I'm prouder of our 204 community than I've ever been because I watch other communities argue and fight and I didn't watch our community do that. We communicated along the way and I'm hoping that's what helped us. I think it was a good year for me to be out there in the community and talking to people because they needed to talk.
I'll always make decisions based on what's best for kids first in my whole career, and everything else falls into place.
Q. What does Year Two look like?
A. I want to focus on leadership all the way around. Our administrators do phenomenal work, so I think I'll focus on my own leadership skills and really make sure we continue to have strong principal and strong staff leadership. I think leadership will be a major focus.
Another major focus will be the implementation of what we've done in the finance arena and monitoring that every step of the way.
Q. Tell me something not many people know about you.
A. I love to travel and experience other cultures. I got to Peru this past year and loved it. And I'm a junker. I like to go to junk markets to check out antiques and knickknacks.
Q. When you leave here today, what will be playing in your iPod when you start your car?
A. Lady Gaga. I'm a hip old lady. I can get down. But I also have some Rascal Flats on there. I enjoy a little bit of everything.