Departing superintendent strove to create 'one Glenbard'
When Glenbard High School District 87 was searching for a new superintendent in 2005, school board members said they wanted to find someone who could unify the district and serve as its public face.
In came Mike Meissen, a Madison, Wis., native and that state's one-time high school principal of the year. The Glenbard job was his first gig as a superintendent.
With four high schools and students from nine different communities, Meissen's task of forming "one Glenbard" — including a common curriculum — was daunting. It came in the face of pressure from parents, teachers and students who warned such a move would tarnish the individuality of each school.
Six years later, Meissen is leaving his $215,665-a-year job as head of the third-largest high school district in Illinois having put in place structures for a standardized curriculum, among other initiatives. But it hasn't come without ruffling some feathers.
"Each school has an individual personality, and yet what ties us together are some core values," Meissen said last week during one of his last days on the job. "There's kind of been some growing pains around where we are going to be alike and where we can continue to be different. That doesn't happen without some tension and conflict. But I think we're recognizing there's some real benefit in operating a school district as one Glenbard."
Meissen said there's been more significant changes in secondary education nationwide in the past six years during than in the previous 25 years he spent in the education field. There's been a "paradigm shift" in education, he says, where high school is now viewed as a preparation vehicle for college — which has led to the creation of a common core curriculum in District 87.
Meissen and district officials also believe it's a way to improve achievement levels by minority students.
"All of the experience in the field and the experience in educational research would say that the key is — what you expect for your best you expect for all. When you adopt a common core, you benchmark against the citizens of the world. I believe that if you can make the secondary level experience work for all kids, you really solve a lot of our societal problems," he said.
It's no wonder, then, that Meissen says he wants his next professional step to be in an urban setting, focusing on prekindergarten through college education in which primary and secondary schools are aligned with a university. He said he doesn't yet have a job lined up, but is still looking.
Since announcing in August that he was going to step down at the end of June, Meissen has applied for superintendent positions in Illinois, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan.
His replacement in District 87 is David Larson, who started this week. Larson most recently was superintendent of the Birmingham Public Schools in Michigan.
Meissen's move to standardize curriculum didn't come without outcry from the community, such as parents at Glenbard West who argued it came at the expense of honors classes that were eliminated. And teachers have said students have fewer opportunities to take electives such as wood shop and music.
Tom Tully, a Glenbard East teacher and president of the Glenbard Education Association, said some teachers have argued the move to "one Glenbard" should have included more input from stakeholders.
"The biggest thing I heard from teachers — and I've told it to him — 'Mike, you've got all great ideas. Ninety percent of the initiatives would be well received. But we would like more time to digest them.'"
In spite of that, Tully said Meissen was willing to take on issues that others in his position might not.
One of the parents who challenged Meissen on curriculum changes, Mary Ozog, was elected to the school board last year. She's since clashed with him on whether high-achieving seniors should be able to opt out of physical education classes, and has taken issue with the district's bidding process for capital projects.
That's not to mention her steadfast opposition to a plan to install lights at Memorial Field across from Glenbard West in Glen Ellyn.
She declined to comment on Meissen's tenure at Glenbard, saying: "There are things I have had issues with which are well-documented."
Ozog and other members of Our Field Our Town, an anti-lights citizens group, argued lighting the field would destroy the character of the neighborhood and create safety problems. Ozog's husband, Jim, represented the group over the course of 11 meetings of the Glen Ellyn plan commission last year in which experts from both sides testified on the pros and cons of installing lights.
Eventually, the plan commission and village board voted to approve District 87's variance requests, and the lights are being installed this summer — roughly 18 months after Meissen and Glenbard officials proposed them.
Meissen said he knew getting support for the proposal was "going to be a challenge," but he conducted a "deep-level analysis" in which he determined the project would be beneficial.
"With the superintendent, there's lots of demands and lots of issues. You ultimately have to decide at a core level, is this supportive of what the mission is for the schools and does it benefit students?" Meissen said. "I knew in my heart and in my soul that it would benefit the students and the community."
Rod Molek, Glenbard's assistant superintendent for human resources and student services, has spent one more year in the district's offices as an administrator than Meissen, and before that was an assistant principal at Glenbard West. He says district officials always discussed "nice ideas," but they remained just that.
When Meissen arrived in 2006, he got the district's stakeholders together to work on a strategic plan to begin implementing those ideas, Molek said.
"His style is that of a coach," Molek said. "He works with his assistant coaches and players. He's with us in the trenches and wants to do better every day … And he's not afraid to tackle issues you know don't have 100 percent support."
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