'A visionary': DuPage District 88 mourning beloved Superintendent Scott Helton
Scott Helton was a school principal at heart.
At Addison Trail High School, he was the kind of principal you'd see at sporting events or theater productions. To promote a school performance of "Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory," he was willing to dress up as an Oompa Loompa.
Helton remained a larger-than-life figure in the school community when he moved out of the principal's office and took the helm of DuPage High School District 88.
"When I went to high school, I couldn't tell you the name of my principal," school board President Donna Craft Cain said. "But I think those kids did, and even when he became superintendent, he was still in the schools as much as he could be."
Helton died Thursday night, leaving the district of more than 3,900 students without its top administrator. Helton had a stroke in late October, two weeks after contracting COVID-19, Cain said.
A father to three sons, Helton spent much of his education career in the district, first as a principal for 11 years at Addison Trail and then as the superintendent for the past eight.
"He was willing to do whatever was necessary to help students to be engaged in learning and help them to become the best people they could be," Cain said.
Helton put an emphasis on working with colleges and universities to expand dual-credit classes so the district's students could earn college credit and get a head start on their future while still in high school.
He also expanded opportunities for students who may have previously been overlooked to take college-level Advanced Placement courses.
"One of the goals was to make sure every student was graduating with college credit or some vocational training," Cain said. "He was passionate about keeping the career and technical classes going as well as our arts and our music."
Equity issues remained at the forefront in a district where students from low-income families constitute nearly 54% of the student body at Addison Trail and 36.5% at Willowbrook High School in Villa Park.
Before the pandemic forced a switch to remote learning, the district had already obtained a grant from Sprint to ensure students had internet connections.
"He was very much about making sure that everybody had what they needed," Cain said.
Helton strove to support school systems that feed into District 88, with the mutual goal of providing a seamless transition from middle to high school.
Addison Elementary District 4 Superintendent John Langton called Helton a "visionary" adept at bringing people together and forging relationships.
"He was a cheerleader for the entire community," Langton said.
Helton held a wide range of positions -- science teacher, dean of students, assistant principal and associate principal -- in different schools before coming to Addison Trail.
At the time, he explained what inspired his career and his own approach to education.
"Besides my parents, some of the most meaningful people in my life were educators, teachers, coaches, activity sponsors," Helton said in 2001. "They bothered. They cared enough to find out who I was."
Outside the district, he coached youth sports and served as the president of the Rotary Club in Villa Park and Lombard, setting in motion a plan to honor a fellow club member and veteran.
The man had never received his high school diploma, having gone to fight in the Korean War. He would have graduated from York High School in Elmhurst.
Helton took it upon himself to reach out to the current York principal about getting the man his long-awaited diploma, Cain said.
"That's the type of thing that he would do," she said.
Cain said she's not concerned about a leadership void in the district because of the culture Helton instilled. He was a collaborative, "tremendously supportive" educator who was open to new ideas and suggestions, she said.
"He's going to live on within the district."