Dist. 211 superintendent hails return of in-person learning as her second year begins
Lisa Small starts her second school year as superintendent of Palatine-Schaumburg High School District 211 this week, but in several ways it might feel more like a first.
The implementation of fully remote learning at the start of the 2020-21 year was unique among Small's nearly three decades in education. Its long-lingering influence on the rest of the year also affected some of the other goals she had thought to implement when she won the position in fall 2019.
While state guidance is again mandating the wearing of masks, the first day of school on Thursday seems more likely to honor the traditional relationship among students and staff than last year's did.
"I will be smiling and waving and welcoming all the students back," she said. "It's why we go into education."
The in-person environment District 211 has worked for so many years to hone is among the key components that allows students to thrive and make the most of their high school years, Small said.
Nevertheless, she counts many successes among what was achieved during her first year as superintendent.
Though remote learning and remote communication played a bigger role last year than anyone would have preferred, some of the technological adaptations proved particularly useful as the district entered a challenging phase under new leadership.
Small said use of in-house webinars meant most staff members received the same guidance from her firsthand on navigating all that was new and unfamiliar.
"I felt the staff got to know their superintendent very quickly," she said. "I found it to be very powerful and very effective. It helps people to understand the 'whys.' People like to know why they're being asked to do something."
Small's 2021-22 goals include getting some things back on track that had to be deferred last year, such as the internships in the community that help students consider career plans while still in high school. Making District 211 a leader in providing such assistance was among the tasks of Small's last position as associate superintendent for instruction.
"That was a great way to connect to every department across the district," she said of her previous job.
She added that all of her positions in District 211 since 1992 -- teacher, coach, director of instructional improvement and Fremd High School principal -- contribute to her daily decisions as superintendent as much as she believed they would when she applied for the top administrator job.
"I recognize the high expectations," she said. "That's something I wanted to remain a part of."
The common thread among her jobs in District 211 is they had serving students as the core responsibility, she said.
"As a teacher, you learn to appreciate the diversity of our community because you see so many students," Small said. "As an administrator, you learn now to connect to not just the students but their parents. When you're leading a building, all aspects of that building, the student is still the center but other people are involved."
In her conversations with the board of education that employs her, Small said there are three main areas of focus on students -- academic opportunities to help them succeed, the social-emotional component providing wellness, and equity.
An emphasis on the equity of students' experiences in the district and trying to decrease its gaps were not among the items deferred by the pandemic last year, with much work being done by a newly commissioned equity committee that recently reported its findings and recommendations to the board.
While the journey toward greater equity is one that never ends, Small said, the areas that may require greater emphasis are likely to change as the environment changes over time.
Board President Anna Klimkowicz said hiring a new superintendent from within hasn't been considered an absolute priority, but she believes the fact the board did so with Small proved as important as it ever has been in weathering the pandemic last year.
"I think she did her job putting the students first," Klimkowicz said. "But there were things she couldn't control. She would have liked to have seen the students in school more and involved more."
That's why Klimkowicz, too, sees the year ahead as a fresh opportunity for all aspects of Small's leadership skills.
"Now she's kind of getting into her own and she's using her vision," Klimkowicz said. "If the students are back in school, that growth is likely. There's just an energy once you're back in the building."
Having recently announced her retirement in 2025, Small will see this week's incoming freshmen through their graduations first.
She said her career in education has been the fulfillment of a lifelong dream, with perhaps a brief consideration of becoming a veterinarian when she was a child as its only competition.
Her personal experience reinforces her belief that even the beginning of high school is not too early to think about one's career, whether it involves college first or not.
"I think it was in high school that I had an idea I wanted to work with kids," Small said.
She believes that's the time for students to explore possibilities of their future. The district's responsibility in helping them on that quest is to ensure they feel safe, comfortable and inspired, she said.