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Barbara Hiller was appointed chief administrative officer of School District 65 for the coming year by the School Board after Superintendent Hardy Murphy resigned just days before the start of school. Ms. Hiller worked for the District as a math teacher, math curriculum supervisor and then principal of Nichols Middle School. After her retirement in 2005 as Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum and Instruction, she worked as an administrator coach for the Consortium for Educational Change (CEC), where, among other things, she coached principals and other administrators about how to improve student learning and achievement.
During this school year, Ms. Hiller will work in tandem with Chief Financial Officer Mary Brown, who will carry out the state-mandated functions of a school superintendent. “It’s not parallel jobs,” said Ms. Hiller. “It’s one job.”
Although she will serve the District for only 100 days, spread out through the school year, she made it clear in a recent interview with the RoundTable that she does not intend that this be a lost year or a year of marking time. The focus this year will be on the children of the District, Ms. Hiller said several times during the interview.
“This should be embedded in everything we do; in choosing curriculum, choosing materials, working with schools, with administrators, it should always be on the top of the list: How are we doing for all of the kids in the school [District] – all of them?”
Opening of Schools
Seeing that the school buildings were ready to welcome teachers, staff and students was an immediate goal for Ms. Hiller and Dr. Brown. The building additions at Nichols and Haven middle schools were ready, and the room air conditioners were running in anticipation of temperatures in the 90s.
Ms. Hiller credits Dr. Brown and the “hardworking staff” with the smooth opening of the District’s 16 schools: “I was not surprised that school started smoothly, because I know a lot of the players, and I knew how hard they were all working: the secretarial staff, warehouse staff, building staff, custodial staff. Over the years that group of people always works so hard the week before school – it’s amazing,” she said. Dr. Brown, she said,
With her 30-year history with the District and her passion for education, she has kept abreast of many of the issues facing the District.
Her focus, she said, will be on supporting teachers, strengthening the power of the school principals and finding ways “to best serve each student in the District.”
The 100-day limit is to keep her pension intact, she said, but “I will be available by phone 24/7 through staff contact. On days I attend night meetings, I will work the full day.”
In addition, she will try to attend as many all-school functions as possible.
Ms. Hiller said she does not plan to apply for the job of permanent superintendent, and one of her goals is to pave the way for a new superintendent.
“I think the overall goal is to have the District run smoothly, with respect at all levels, keeping our focus on the children and the programs that best suit them [and] getting prepared for someone to come in who will have a clean slate. … I want to make sure that everybody’s really comfortable and will be welcoming to a new superintendent,” Ms. Hiller said.
One way to do that, Ms. Hiller said, is to empower teachers and principals and support them in their efforts to educate each child.
Power to the Principals
“We have a District curriculum, so that unifies us all,” Ms. Hiller said. ”My belief – and I think the belief of the District in general – is that the principals and their administrative staff should be empowered to run their schools and that the central office is the support system. It can provide leadership, support and staff development – all in support of the building and the curriculum and the children…. My first goal is to make the building administrators feel comfortable that I’m not a director of their programs but a support for them. … I would like to be sure that the administrators at each school are making judgments for their particular buildings – and I think the buildings are all a little different.
“What I hope to do is build trust so that they feel comfortable saying what concerns them and asking for help on those issues. I know the central office has become more empowered over the years and you certainly can’t just break that pattern suddenly. On the other hand, I don’t think you can evaluate a principal well unless you’ve turned the control of the building over to him or her, given support and been clear about what you asked them to do.
“If they really feel empowered for the children in their building, that is what moves the District forward, not a global statement from the central office,” said Ms. Hiller. “Leadership needs to model that, and that can be done by continuing to strengthen the implementation [of curriculum] though staff development at each building and District-wide. What I would love is for principals to come to a meeting and say, ‘This isn’t working; this is what we need to make it work better.’”
Evaluating and ‘Sorting Out’
In June, a District 65 Teacher Evaluation committee composed of administrators and teachers reached a consensus on a new teacher-evaluation system that will be implemented for this school year.
Ms. Hiller said one thing the results of the evaluations will show is what is missing that would improve student achievement and what sorts of staff and professional development are needed.
Ms. Hiller also says she recognizes that teaching cannot be fully evaluated by just math and reading scores. Social studies and science also support literacy and problem-solving.
“Two courses don’t change a child’s life, all of them do. I’m a strong believer in the arts, and I think opening doors for kids to find their own passions is also important. I don’t want to lose sight of any of that,” said Ms. Hiller
Articulation With ETHS
Ms. Hiller said conversations with teachers and administrators at Evanston Township High School, which may have lagged in some years, should continue under her watch. “I hope we’ll have curriculum discussion on a regular basis among department chairs,” she said.
‘I don’t know how much has happened recently, but that’s an open door and we need to keep it wide open. It’s important for the community to see that we’re having these communications.” She had already made plans to attend a joint meeting held on Sept. 11.
Addressing the Achievement Gap
One or more factors may contribute to the ongoing but narrowing achievement gap between white and minority students, and the District must be prepared to ask the right questions to ascertain the kind of support needed, said Ms. Hiller.
As examples, she said, the District should ask, “Is this a poverty issue? Is this a racial issue? Is this a language issue – or all of the above? What are the academic needs? What are the social needs?”
The community school pilot at Chute Middle School offers a lot of opportunity “to study the needs of the students – not just academically but what the community and the parental needs are. Working with the McGaw Y and Youth Organizations Umbrella on those issues will give us better information, as we talk about every kid and about closing the gap on whoever the population is,” she said.
Budget and Programs
Getting the budget in shape for the next few years is likely to require the evaluation of the effectiveness of certain programs, Ms. Hiller said. “Obviously fiscal responsibly is huge, but, once we have the data, any evaluation should really be also an assessment of whether each program, whatever the program is, is giving to our children the best that we have or whether there is something else we could be doing…. I think as the data comes in that’s what the plan is.”
Thorough evaluations should be performed every year for each program, Ms. Hiller said. “Just because we had a program for a number of years doesn’t mean we should keep it. Kids change, the needs change. … I think when we get all this data, we really ought to look at it and tear it apart and decide whether [each program] is appropriate and should continue… and that to me is an ongoing issue.”
Ms. Hiller added, “The really important thing is implementation of curriculum appropriately for kids. And I think that we all need to stay on top of that. I don’t think it ever goes away. … Do that and I think we’ll move forward … Respect, respect, respect.”
Hand in hand with respect is transparency, Ms. Hiller said. ‘I’m in favor of making things very transparent, because everything we do affects every kid. And I don’t ever want this to be ever seen as a behind-closed-doors situation. I believe we owe this to the [District 65] community and to all the people who stay here after their kids leave because they believe in all that’s going on: If you have questions, ask them.”
The search for a new superintendent will begin in earnest this month, and the hope is to have a new superintendent in place by next July.