Retiring superintendent reflects on challenges, breakthroughs at District 211
During Dan Cates' six years as superintendent, Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 attained a new level of financial stability and strived for higher standards of student preparedness for the next phases of their lives.
But despite guiding the district to debt-free status without ever seeking a tax hike referendum, the retiring Cates may best be remembered for leading the district when it was in the national spotlight over transgender students' rights and innovating ways to conduct instruction remotely when the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered schools.
With nearly 12,000 students at five high schools -- Conant, Fremd, Hoffman Estates, Palatine and Schaumburg -- and two alternative high schools, District 211 is the second largest high school district in Illinois.
Cates can't say for sure what led to the district taking center stage on the question of transgender students' locker room access when it's an issue faced by every public high school district. For months, parents, students and activists on both sides of the issue packed school board meetings as district leaders worked to balance the rights of transgender students with privacy concerns raised by some of their classmates.
Cates won't predict whether the district's ultimate decision to grant students unrestricted access to the locker rooms for the gender of which they identify will prove a guide for others.
But he believes for certain that District 211 took the right course.
"I like to think our district had the right combination of people and the right setting and the right level of support at the right time," Cates said. "There were many challenging days. I think we went about it in a very caring way. I'm very pleased we are where we are. I would say our experience is inherently valuable to other districts who may face this issue in the future. I know we tried to do the right thing for all students."
Though in part defined by his leadership during the debate over transgender student rights, Cates' tenure is ending amid the upheaval to the traditional high school experience caused by the pandemic.
Being a firm believer in the notion that a school community -- when working best -- is a family, Cates is not quick to recognize any silver linings in circumstances that keep its members apart. But in the drive-by parades and socially distanced celebrations marking the Class of 2020's graduations, he saw the proof of his highest hopes for those bonds.
"It was clearly evident to me that both our teachers and our students were so excited to see each other," Cates said. "I could see it in their eyes that our schools do function as a family. It's critically important for kids to feel connections."
He considers among the highlights of the past six years those times he would go to one of the schools, join some students at lunch and ask them who the teacher or staff member was who'd made a difference in their lives.
"Without exception, every student had someone," he said. "Kids know when you are the one who is going to care about them."
Perhaps the most memorable lesson from his own training was when he was told that what students need to succeed is a caring adult, access to opportunities and high expectations.
He knows that is true because it had been his truth. And that's part of the reason District 211 is putting greater emphasis on college and career readiness.
"More kids are earning more college credit (while in high school) than ever before," Cates said. "Were it not for opportunities and the ability to access higher education, my life would look radically different."
As far as his next step, the 55-year-old Cates is keeping an open mind.
"I'm going to let life come to me," he said. "I feel like I have a lot of good years left in me."
He's more certain about District 211's bright future, having worked with his successor Lisa Small in her role as associate superintendent for instruction throughout his years as superintendent.
"Lisa's going to be an exceptional leader," he said.
In addition to the care, attention and expectations shared with students, Cates said another priority of his tenure was the community outreach that provided -- among other things -- the public input that strengthened the district's five-year strategic plan.
"Hard work, communicating with each other and believing in doing the right thing will always lead to the right course," he said. "I would like to think we did that."