Daniel Cates has spent his entire 22 years in education working in Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211, and is about to start his 23rd as its new superintendent.
His passion for education, however, was lit among much humbler surroundings than the five technology-savvy suburban high schools he now leads.
While studying at the University of Notre Dame, Cates went on a mission trip to Mexico to work with migrant workers.
Visiting several small villages, he was touched by the place of pride the schools held in the hearts of each community.
"When I returned, I had this moment of clarity -- education!" Cates recalls.
He completed some student teaching while at college, but began training in school psychology, the job for which he joined District 211 in 1992. He earned his doctorate from Indiana University in 1994.
Cates says he feels privileged to take the reins of the prestigious school district, but knows he will be leading it into an era of different responsibilities and expectations than his six predecessors knew.
Even as the 2014-15 school year begins with each student being issued an individual technology device as an integral part of the curriculum -- a growing percentage of District 211's population is qualifying for free and reduced lunches. More than 200 students are considered homeless.
Conant, Fremd, Hoffman Estates, Palatine and Schaumburg high schools serve very diverse communities, Cates said.
He sees one of his responsibilities as respecting the individuality of each school while expecting all of them to live up to the same academic standards.
"Our curriculum is consistent, our expectations are consistent," he said.
In addition to the retirement of former superintendent Nancy Robb, there were many senior staff retirements this past year.
After being named superintendent-elect last October, Cates had to turn his attention immediately to filling 24 top positions that were being vacated.
"Some are new to the district, others are elevated," Cates said. "Who you have on the bus is absolutely critical."
District 211 board President Bill Robertson said Cates was seen by the board as the absolutely right choice at this time.
"The number of new administrators in District 211 this year is unprecedented," Robertson said. "When the board made its selection ... last October, we knew Dr. Cates was the right person to lead this group of new administrators, as well as to set the course for the entire district.
"Dr. Cates has proved that he's a dedicated, hardworking individual, and strongly values teamwork," he added. "We're confident that under Dr. Cates' direction, we will stay on course to attain our educational and financial goals."
Cates' journey from psychologist to superintendent included time as assistant and then director of special education. His most recent positions were as assistant and then associate superintendent for administrative services.
While he's been at the highest level of administration in recent years -- leading instructional teams and directly overseeing service to students -- Cates said there's a big difference between being at the superintendent's side and being superintendent.
"No single job will prepare you for superintendent," he said.
Though Cates' career in education represents barely one generation, he has seen rapid changes in education rarely matched in the past.
The world, "is faster and more immediate" in 1992," he says.
And as much as technology is responsible for much of the change, District 211's emphasis on teachers as the ones who will ultimately light the way to the future for their students hasn't changed, Cates said.
"Our main investment is (still) teachers," he added.
Cates is pleased both the students and faculty of the district are embracing these changes.
A group of students last year engaged in an initiative called "Digital Democracy" which sought to define how District 211, as a community of technology users, will interact and conduct itself in the years ahead.
Another positive change has been the increased emphasis on reaching every single student, Cates said. In the past, schools probably based their opinions of themselves too much on their averages, he believes.
While most people look on their high school years as a watershed time in their lives, the truth is that 180 days -- multiplied by four -- is a narrow window to provide all the preparation for the future that's expected, Cates said.
"Every day of the few that we have is important," he said, looking ahead expectantly to late August. "But there's a particular thrill in the start of a school year."