How one principal's resignation led to changes at 3 suburban high schools
Erin DeLuga wasn't looking for a new position when she was contacted this past year by a search firm.
She was making great strides in her fourth year as principal at York High School in Elmhurst, and was loving every second of it. But when she was asked if she'd be interested in a top leadership position within Lake Zurich Unit District 95, DeLuga was intrigued.
Lake Zurich High School Principal Robert Vossel had submitted his resignation back in November, prompting an extensive search for his replacement.
With family in the Lake Zurich area, and her own home less than 10 minutes away, DeLuga figured there was no harm in applying. She never thought she'd make it to the final stages of interviews. And she certainly never anticipated getting an offer.
DeLuga accepted the position earlier this year, igniting a chain reaction of new leaders in three suburban high school.
At York, DeLuga's role will be filled by Glenbard East High School Principal Shahe Bagdasarian, an Elmhurst resident who is eager to serve the community where he is raising a family.
His successor at Glenbard East will be Antoine Anderson, who has been an assistant principal at the Lombard school for several years.
Each administrator now faces the task of transitioning to a new position, made more difficult by the coronavirus pandemic, remote learning and the social distancing guidelines that have affected schools the past few months.
But all three say they're up to the challenge. And they're leaning on their past experiences -- and each other -- to make it through.
DeLuga never planned to follow in the footsteps of her parents.
Both had careers in education -- her mother as an art teacher, her father as an English teacher. But DeLuga wanted to pursue an entirely different path as a police officer, hoping to eventually work for the FBI.
The fall after she graduated from college with an English degree, her father encouraged her to apply for one of three open positions at Marian Catholic High School, where he worked. Though DeLuga was hesitant, it turned out to be the job that launched her career.
"It's been a wild ride," said DeLuga, a Palatine resident. "I didn't anticipate ever being an educator, but I'm so glad that happened because it's definitely my life's passion. I just didn't realize it at the time."
Those early years as an English teacher were a blur to DeLuga. Former students who still keep in touch tell her she was their best teacher, that she touched their lives. In reality, she said, "I didn't know what I was doing. ... I just loved literature and could always convey that love."
Back then, DeLuga never dreamed of becoming a principal. She secured her teaching certificate, moved on to teach at Wheeling High School, and began pursuing a master's degree in teaching. But after a department chair told her she would do well in administration, she realized she had a knack for supporting both teachers and students and decided to change course.
DeLuga will never forget the moment her father, one of her biggest role models, commented that she was going to the "dark side," having been frustrated by administrators and the school system structure throughout his career.
That resonated with DeLuga, who told her dad, "I want to be the person who changes that for people like you."
DeLuga worked her way through the ranks at Northwest Suburban High School District 214, serving as a department chairwoman and an associate principal. Then about four years ago, she saw a job posting for a principal in Elmhurst Unit District 205.
"I was really, really excited to give it a shot," she said.
Her time at York was full of accomplishments, from launching a business INCubatoredu program to creating a new manufacturing lab to implementing a blended learning experience even before the pandemic struck. She formed strong bonds with her staff and her students -- especially the Class of 2020, whom she watched grow from freshmen into young adults embarking on their post-high school adventures.
DeLuga now hopes to bring similar innovative, career-centered learning opportunities to Lake Zurich High School. But her primary mission remains the same as when she first started in education: be a champion and a supporter for students as they pursue their lifelong dreams.
"It's a trickle-down, pebble-in-a-pond effect," she said. "A principal should have a vision -- a balance of making sure (educators) know what their role is and know that you're there to support them, but also that you're all working toward the same end goal: helping kids."
As principal of Glenbard East High School, Bagdasarian started every school year with a visit to each freshman English class. He liked being able to introduce himself, chat with the new students and answer their questions in a more personalized setting.
Throughout the year, he attended athletic events, plays and concerts. He would meet with business INCubatoredu students before their pitch nights. He organized a principal advisory council to hear concerns and suggestions from the student body.
Listening to the student voice is a "big piece" to running a school, Bagdasarian said, but it can be challenging when you're being pulled in so many different directions.
"You have to be intentional with that," he says. "Take every opportunity you can before school, after school, being in hallways, walking through the cafeteria -- those are all part of the job.
"I think it's really important as a principal to be visible."
Putting the students first is a philosophy that has stuck with Bagdasarian since he began his career as a special-education teacher at Elmwood Park High School. He moved over to teach at York, where he later became the dean of students before taking a job as an assistant principal at Glenbard East.
Bagdasarian had no intention of leaving Glenbard East, which has become like a home to him over the last 11 years. But when he heard DeLuga would be leaving the top seat at York, he was intrigued by the opportunity to return.
Being an Elmhurst resident helped guide his decision, he said. He'll also have two sons at York next year -- a unique opportunity for Bagdasarian, though he knows it'll be an adjustment for his kids, he said laughing.
To DeLuga, knowing that her replacement is a familiar face within the school and the community "makes my heart happy."
From an academic and programming perspective, Bagdasarian said the two schools offer similar opportunities. But there are some key differences, the most prominent being that Glenbard East is in a high school district, whereas York is part of unit district that offers kindergarten through 12th grade.
That means Bagdasarian's new role will focus more heavily on vertical articulation -- working with the middle schools to ensure students districtwide are prepared to move into high school. Equity in grading, assessments and course selection is a key piece of the puzzle.
Being a principal is demanding on multiple fronts, requiring flexibility and adaptability and leadership through tough circumstances, he said. Those qualities have never been more pertinent than in light of the COVID-19 crisis.
"We anticipate kids' needs are going to change a bit. We have to be ready to roll out a plan," Bagdasarian said. "You want to make sure you're listening and leading with empathy. Those are two things that I think are really important."
Glenbard East students and staff members have a common chant to unify the school community: "We are East."
That's a loaded phrase, said Anderson, who just finished his seventh year as assistant principal for student services. It points to the diverse population, to the unique culture within the building, to the hardworking employees who "roll up our sleeves and do what's best for students."
"I feel that's who I am as well," Anderson said. "I am East."
That's why, when he learned that Bagdasarian would be vacating the principal position, Anderson jumped at the opportunity to apply. In his nine years at Glenbard East -- including two as a dean -- he had overseen student discipline, activities and services that addressed social-emotional needs.
"Considering my previous experiences, I thought it meshed well with what our building needs," he said. "It just seemed like a good fit."
Looking back now, it's hard to believe Anderson originally was pursuing a different career.
Anderson was a dual-sport athlete in college while earning a bachelor's degree in business from Olivet Nazarene University. When he returned for his final undergraduate semester, his baseball coach asked if he'd be interested in becoming an assistant coach.
He grew "quite fond" of the position and decided to stay on an extra semester, at the end of which he intended to leave and start a job in the business world. But he instead stayed on at Olivet Nazarene to continue coaching while pursuing his master's in teaching.
Thus began his unexpected career in education. Anderson went on to serve as a business teacher for 10 years, first at Rich South High School in Richton Park, then at Maine West in Des Plaines. After earning a second master's in administration and leadership, he secured his first dean position at Glenbard East -- and he was hired by Bagdasarian, an assistant principal at the time.
"Over the years, we've always had a collaborative relationship," Anderson said. "He's a very valuable resource. ... It makes the transition a little bit easier."
Anderson knows he'll face challenges as he takes on a larger leadership role, particularly amid the coronavirus crisis. He's already had to shift his priorities to address the inevitable gaps students and staff members may face in the fall.
But he believes his leadership experience within the Glenbard East community for the better part of a decade gives him an advantage.
He knows the staff members very well -- "I couldn't imagine a better group of educators to take on these challenges with." He loves the academic classes and extracurricular activities available to students -- "a multitude of opportunities to find their area of passion." He embraces the school's diversity -- "When you walk these halls on a daily basis, what you see is a reflection of our society. I'm very proud of that."
Moving forward, Anderson hopes to cultivate a positive climate, make personal connections and help guide his students the way his own high school teachers and leaders helped him.
"That time in my life I felt educators have the largest impact," he said. "That's the stage right before they're going to enter into society. We're preparing them for the real world."
Occupation: Lake Zurich High School principal
Education: Master's in school leadership from Concordia University; Bachelor's in English from University of Illinois
Previous work experience: Principal at York High School; associate principal for instruction and curriculum at Wheeling High School; English/fine arts division chairwoman at Prospect High School; English teacher at Wheeling High School; English teacher at St. Charles North High School; English teacher at Marian Catholic High School
Occupation: York Community High School principal
Education: Doctor of Education, Educational Leadership and Policy Studies, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Master of Education, Special Education, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign; Bachelor of Science, Exceptional Education, State University of New York College at Buffalo
Previous work experience: Principal, Glenbard East High School; assistant principal for instruction, Glenbard East; assistant principal for student services, Glenbard East; dean of students, York Community High School; special education teacher, York; special education teacher, Elmwood Park High School
Occupation: Glenbard East High School principal
Residence: LaGrange Park
Education: Master of Arts, administration and leadership, Concordia University; Master of Arts, teaching, Olivet Nazarene University; Bachelor of Science, business administration, Olivet Nazarene University
Previous work experience: Assistant principal for student services, Glenbard East High School; dean of students, Maine West High School; dean of students, Glenbard East; business education teacher, Maine West; business education teacher, Rich South High School