It's helpful to have a key that opens every door in St. Charles Unit District 303 on the first day of school. For one, you can park at the back of a school and enter whichever door you're closest to. And if you're the school superintendent, as Don Schlomann is, you don't have to announce your presence for everyone to know you're in the building.
"They have code names for me on the staff radios," Schlomann says with a chuckle. "Lone Ranger is in the house."
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And by the time he's stepped into his first classroom to say hello, no one is surprised to see him.
"I try to get to all the schools the first week," Schlomann said Wednesday. "It usually takes me about two days. It's always amazing to me that people really care about what you think, but they do. They really care that you had a chance to see them, talk with them."
But it's not just about being present on the first day. Schlomann takes time to interact with students on a one-on-one level. There's a junior at one of the high schools who is part of the reason the administrative building has signs outside banning X-Games-type activities.
"I've run him off from our building at least a dozen times for skateboarding," Schlomann said after chatting with the junior. "But he wants to go into the Navy and be an engineer. I'm ex-Navy, and I was an engineer. So we're going to meet up together later. It's important the students know you really are a person, not just the guy who runs them off for skateboarding."
The same goes for talking to parents. In his experience, the first day of school is toughest for them.
"Who cries the most? New parents. No doubt about it," Schlomann said. "Most schools keep track of how many criers they had on the first day, meaning the students. But I'll go into a school, and they'll say we only had one crier. But go outside, and you'll always find several parents crying."
The first day of school, the two weeks before school starts, and the two weeks before school ends are the toughest time of the year. At the end of the year, he'll have parents filled with angst about whether their child is ready to move to the next grade. But the first day? That's about trust.
And a smiling, knowledgeable face goes a long way to creating trust. At Wredling Middle School, it's John Wredling, the former district superintendent and namesake of the school who supplies that greeting even while rebounding from a recent fall at age 100. At all the other schools on Day 1, it's Schlomann providing that little extra boost of trust.
"There's a lot of anxiety about how the bus schedule will work, what my kid's teacher will be like and, especially for new parents, can they trust us with their kid," Schlomann said. "Ninety-nine percent of that goes away once the kids get into school. Yes, the bus did get to the stop on time. No, my teacher doesn't have horns growing out of her head. It settles down."
The absence of horns is also a good trait for a school district superintendent. Schlomann isn't in school every day. It's not unusual for students to not recognize him. But he has script that automatically ingratiates him with any student he engages with who doesn't know what a superintendent does.
"My job is I get to call off school when it snows too much," Schlomann tells a group of students at Munhall Elementary who instantly break into smiles. "Also, I care about you guys, so I want to ask how you're doing."
And that's exactly what Schlomann does as he breezes in and out of classrooms throughout the district on Day 1. If there's a kid on crutches he wants to know how the injury happened. How did the middle schooler become a Montgomery Biscuits fan?
It's a brisk pace when there are 17 schools on the list. But that's a question that's also on Schlomann's mind on the first day. Enrollment is down. Graduating classes are more than 1,100 students. But the kindergarten crop is only numbering in the 600s in recent years. But it's not easy to close a school down.
"It's not easy for a community to turn an old school building into something else," he said. "And if it's just a closed school, those can be magnets for problems. We have an obligation to consider the downside. And look at how fast this economy changed. It will probably never boom back the way it was before. But if it does start going again, and new jobs come to this area, you'll be looking at trying to reopen a school or building a new school. Nobody likes to do that."