School doesn't start until Aug. 26 for students in Glen Ellyn Elementary District 41, but the learning process already has begun for the district's new superintendent.
Paul Gordon says he's been doing a lot of listening since arriving in town to get up to speed on issues. Gordon took over day-to-day operations of District 41 on July 1 following the retirement of Ann Riebock, who spent seven years at the helm of the five-school district that primarily covers the north side of Glen Ellyn and parts of Wheaton, Lombard, Glendale Heights and Carol Stream.
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Gordon, 46, comes to Glen Ellyn from the Adams 12 Five Star Schools district in Westminster, Colo., near Denver, where he served as chief academic officer for the past three years.
His new role marks the first time he has worked outside the Adams 12 district, where he started his career 23 years ago as a football coach and middle school reading teacher.
He said he was drawn to the district because it shares his educational mission: to engage students as 21st-century learners who will be prepared to compete in an increasingly global society.
"It's about the thinking: allowing kids opportunities to solve problems, to be in situations that are unique and more challenging and rigorous," Gordon said. "That's what Glen Ellyn (District 41) is pushing each and every one of its kids (toward), to ensure they have an individualized education. Many districts say that, but not all follow the actions."
Chief among the district's initiatives to address 21st-century teaching and learning, as well as the coming national implementation of Common Core standards, is the Think Tank program, a controversial plan to group some elementary grades together in multiage classrooms, while also allowing some teachers to specialize in certain subjects.
Beginning in August, teachers in grades two through five will specialize in either literacy/social studies or STEAM, an acronym for science, technology, engineering, arts and mathematics. Fourth- and fifth-graders will be in multiage classrooms.
Gordon said he's impressed with the work officials have put into the initiative and is confident in the plans, despite being a "worrier by nature."
"I'm a person who worries about anything and everything and implementation is one of those pieces that I'll worry about no matter what level of implementation we're doing," Gordon said. "I want to ensure we're very thoughtful, and we have been."
A committee called TEAM 21, a group that will succeed the Think Tank long-range planning committee, will gather in two weeks to begin putting the plan in place. Teachers are meeting this summer to receive professional development training.
Gordon met with a group of parents this week who were opposed to Think Tank, and promised to meet with them again in three weeks to review detailed plans.
"This is a very engaged community that really takes their role as parents seriously," Gordon said. "I see it as a positive. I want to hear their concerns and criticisms ... I am ultimately accountable for this work and I always will be. I stand behind it, and I believe in it."
Another controversial issue in which the district has been embroiled in the past few months has been a proposal to acquire land owned by Wheaton College at 1825 College Ave. to build a new junior high school, despite the college's opposition to a sale. The school board tabled a decision in April to make a formal offer, while also putting aside plans to pursue eminent domain proceedings, after hearing opposition from community members.
Gordon said the proposal to acquire the college's land isn't "smack dab in the middle" of the district's plans to address facility needs and eliminate portable classrooms, but it isn't off the table either.
He said he would spend time studying the issue and listening to "multiple perspectives" in the community.
"Our facilities are aging, it's just a fact," Gordon said. "There's roughly 500 students in portable (classrooms) -- that concerns me and that concerns our board and parents in our community. What is the solution, I don't know."
For now, he said the district would at least replace some of the 32 portable units districtwide that are the oldest. The first ones were installed in 2001.
Gordon was hired by the school board in February following a nationwide search that garnered a total of 299 candidates. He signed a three-year contract that pays him a base salary of $195,000 in the first year and makes him eligible for performance-based increases thereafter.