Smile Politely

I can hear the heart of parents: An interview with Dr. Susan Zola

I’d spent most of my entire life feeling anxiety about the idea of a Superintendent. I think it stems from my father being a public school teacher, and going to picket during strikes. I can’t totally remember what he said, but I am vividly remembering my old man rattle off about the union, and the push/pull, and the liberal in him just turning bitter at certain times. I am certain that my second grade teacher said a few things in class that she probably shouldn’t have said either.

Do you remember snow days in grade school? Or even the potential of a snow day? My lord. It was all on your Super. You knew it. Your best friends knew it. You talked about it. You knew their name, and you speculated on the type of person they were, and what might drive their decision. And ultimately, they made the call. It felt like watching a ref on TV in a game that really meant something. Ed Hightower. Jim Burr. TV Teddy. When they blew the call, you really let them have it. And when they made the right one… heaping praise.

Thank you. Yes, I will spend the day sledding or playing video games. Thank you, so very, very much.

One of the biggest surprises in becoming a parent is how much the idea of grammar school suddenly comes back into your life. You sort of get hit in the head with it, long before they arrive at the Kindergarten doors. I hadn’t really thought about it in years, and now all of a sudden, I am obsessed by it. I have a running list of questions to ask the people at Unit 4. My friend, a school teacher, asked me to seriously consider not asking quite THAT many questions when we get there. Trust him, he says.

I do.

And so, if you are paying attention to it at all, in the end, everything seems comes down to one person: The superintendent.

Here in Champaign, Unit 4 recently hired a new one.

Dr. Susan Zola was built for this job. Her history as a teacher and an administrator aside, she brings perspective and fairness and experience to the table in a way that very few can. The idea that our lives shape us is universal, this is true. But not everyone’s lives are built the same.

She began her teaching career in Urbana at Thomas Paine Elementary, and then went on to serve as the Principal of both Dr. Howard Elementary and Jefferson Middle School. She’s spent time working with the teacher’s union, on both sides of the table. She’s run the gamut in public education, she’s also raised a family of her own all the while.

I got a chance to hang out for a bit with Dr. Zola, and she let me pick her brain a bit. What I learned is worth the read. She has good ideas. She works towards goals, exclusively. Her understanding about educating children is rooted in raising her own family. She’s a solid choice to ascend to the position this year, and highly deserving of the chance to cap off a long and important career. 

Smile Politely: Your history in this community goes back a long ways by now. What’s different in public education now by comparison to when you were teaching at Thomas Paine Elementary in District 116?

Dr. Susan Zola: I think there are still many commonalities over my 32 years as an educator. Communities still value public schools. Teachers and staff continue to make a difference in the lives of their students and families. The end goal is still to produce successful scholars and citizens. The differences may reflect the changing realities of our community and state. I see a growing number of families struggling with issues of poverty, trauma or unemployment. When a family is struggling, it can impact a child’s ability to learn. Although I had some students, as a teacher, working through these concerns, I believe the numbers of students and their families experiencing one or more of these concerns has grown.

SP: Now that the most recent referendum has passed, how does Unit 4 plan on addressing future negotiations with the Champaign Federation of Teachers? There’s been a few close calls lately, and I think that most folks in Champaign would like to see that come to an end in order to build more trust between the teachers and the administration.

Zola: I think the referendum passage is a confirmation that our community values education and those who work for our children and families. Strong schools do indeed breed stronger communities. In terms of future negotiations it always starts with creating a relationship of trust and rapport. Our Board, administration, teachers, and support staff are ultimately part of the same team. When we share common goals and values, it is much easier to discern and resolve a contract or any other concern. Beginning with a mindset that we have more in common than not is key. Keeping our students and their learning at the core of our conversation, we can accomplish a lot together.

SP: Your professional accomplishments are widely know, but if you can, share a little about your family and your experiences as a parent and a partner?

Zola: I have lived in Champaign-Urbana since 1985. My husband, David, a professor of Educational Psychology and I have been married 28 years. We have three children.  Our daughter, Sarah Zola Khazoum graduated from the University of Illinois last year last Spring. Sarah married her high school sweetheart, Eli, and they are living in Oak Park. Both are working in doctoral programs. We have twins, Anne and Luke. Anne is a sophomore at Northwestern and our son Luke is participating in Champaign Schools Young Adult Program. It has been an interesting journey as we have raised our three children. From choir, to theater, to Challenger League we have supported each one of them by being present, cheering them on and ensuring that we nurtured their talents and interests.

SP: How does being a parent to a child with special needs affect the way you taught? How does it affect the way you administer?

Zola: Parenting is a journey in and of itself. Learning to traverse the landscape of helping a young person grow into a productive citizen is a lifelong task. Parenting a child with special needs provides a unique lens from which to parent. You are more attentive to the details of each day. Safety is a core value and creating spaces for their voice is also key. Helping others see and appreciate your child’s value.  When appropriate, allowing others to see your child and their strengths. Telling their story in thoughtful spaces. Ensuring a balance to allow your other children to be themselves and enjoy their growing up years. Having the privilege to interact with other parents thought the educational arena who may have a similar journey allows for a unique perspective. I can hear the heart of those parents as they struggle with medical and emotional stability for their child. I have been in that space. Although all of our stories are somewhat difficult their is a common appreciation for life and valuing the journey as it is presented. Being grateful they have survived all that life has presented them. Recognizing that, as a family, you are stronger, more aware and offer a resiliency in making it through the day.

SP: By now, we’re all aware of Academy High planning on opening up this coming fall of 2017. Have you had a chance to meet Dr. [Darren] Pascavage at all yet? What are your impressions of their intentions, and do you think it says anything about where a portion of this community sees its public education? 

Zola: I have read in the News-Gazette regarding the updates on Academy High but I have not met Dr. Pascavage. I really don’t have any insights on their intentions other than what I have read in the newspaper. My focus as Superintendent will be investing my time and energy on the work of Champaign Schools and growing our successes as a public school system. We will continue to focus our efforts on academic success and creating engaging learning opportunities for all of our students. We also want every family to feel welcome in our schools by inviting them to be a part of our work. I am excited and honored to continue to move this work forward.

SP: With Betsy DeVos being confirmed as Secretary of Education, what’s your feeling about the future of federal involvement within the structure of public education? Do you see it as a death knell in some way, or might it be a chance to showcase the importance of a stronger and more comprehensive plan moving forward down the line? 

Zola: As a leader, I work from a growth mindset. Any time collective voices are speaking their ideas, concerns and seeking to better their community it is a chance to move our work forward. Given the reality of our state budget, having some federal dollars to support various programs has and would continue to be beneficial. Ensuring guidance for students with special needs, additional resources for districts that serve a higher concentration of students of poverty and other federal grants allows some common understandings for educators across the country. Some level of guidance and consistency is helpful. Striking a balance between federal, state and local control is the key to any new initiatives. Clearly the new Secretary of Education has captured the attention of many across the country. It will be important to continue to advocate for the needs of public schools as a vibrant part of any community.

SP: School of Choice in Champaign is always a hotly debated discussion — and it’s something that you’ve had a hand in since its inception. How do you feel it fits in now versus when it was first implemented? 

Zola: I was involved in helping establish the Schools of Choice assignment process over 20 years ago. The intention then and still today is to ensure we offer families a diverse school experience and programming options. Over the years, we’ve worked to improve our communication so that families understand the process. We’ve worked to be transparent in the process by offering historical data for families to review and have created many spaces to discuss the school options with members of our team so families can make the most informed choices possible. As I talk with families about their experiences most would say they felt they had a lot of information from which to make their decision. There can still be some anxiety until the family receives their assignment in mid-April. Given that over 88% of those who register by the end of March receive their first choice for K and almost 95% receive one of their top three choices, the overall process works well. Choice has allowed us to create some unique instructional opportunities based on faculty and family input.  I think we can continue to review not only the process but how we can enhance a few campuses to ensure all twelve elementary schools are meeting not only the academic needs of our students but are also reflective of the values that are important to our families within this community.

SP: What specific experiences or understandings define your vision?

Zola: My vision for our schools centers on teaching and learning, specifically how our work spans the K-12 continuum. The facilities work that we will be able to accomplish with the referendum dollars is a great opportunity to take a look at 21st century learning opportunities and what we need to offer our staff to help them prepare to move into new instructional spaces.

It is also an important time to stay connected to our larger community. Over 67% of our voters provided a resounding “YES” that they want to invest in our public schools and we are sincerely grateful for that support. We should use their support to reengage conversations about not only the rebuilding of our facilities but also what our diverse stakeholders would like to see from our community schools.

Finally, I want to reinvest in the people connected to our school communities.  Spending time meeting with teachers, support staff, administration and students can offer some clear guidance to me in how we move our teaching and learning work forward. It is my opinions that investing in the people and not a specific program will be the difference maker in the end. Creating strong relationships built on trust, providing high quality professional learning opportunities, and ensuring faculty and staff feel valued will be core values of my work moving forward.

SP: Beyond the achievement gap, what are some other areas related to teaching and learning that you would like to address during your tenure?

Zola: In education, we are constantly utilizing both quantitative and qualitative data to measure student progress and identify growth areas. Quantitative data such as SAT scores, PARCC, MAP, Aimsweb, etc. allow us to see how our students compare to their peers both within the state and nationally. We also collect formative data which is more directly connected to the decision making that teachers would use in their daily plans.

Qualitative data provides a narrative of how various individuals perceive and feel about our work. It can range from someone stopping me in the grocery store to share a story, or asking families or staff to complete a climate survey about their school. These moments are equally valuable because they tell us about the perceptions and experiences of different families as we create a strategic vision to move our District forward.

Closing the achievement gap will continue to be a priority because we have more work to do. We need to keep lines of communication open with our community, because we cannot operate in isolation to realize this vision for our students. I believe we will need more community support to really shift the outcomes, especially for our African American students. We have and will continue to build our own capacity in this work internally to better address the needs of students performing below college and career benchmarks.

My belief is that as a community we need to examine what systems are in place to support children and families from birth to kindergarten. We know that our families need support in a variety of areas to meet the needs of their children, including access to quality health care, preschool, employment, housing, and trauma supports. Supporting families holistically as a community will ensure students arrive to school ready to focus and take on the work of learning each day here in Champaign Unit 4 School District.

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