Starting a conversation: New St. Charles D303 superintendent aims to bring community together
Paul Gordon has had a listening ear since starting July 1 as the new superintendent of St. Charles School District 303.
"Really, it has been all about learning, about sitting down and having conversations with our board members, our principals, our cabinet members and our district office personnel and to start building that deeper understanding of D-303," Gordon said. "So that's been an incredible opportunity."
Gordon previously had served as the superintendent of the Wenatchee School District in Wenatchee, Washington. Before that, he served as superintendent for Glen Ellyn School District 41 for six years.
He succeeds Jason Pearson, who left the district to become the superintendent of Northbrook School District 28.
Gordon and the district also want to hear what the community has to say. Talked about during the recent St. Charles School Board retreat, the district plans to hold listening sessions.
The sessions, which will take place in different areas of the community, are set to begin in the coming weeks. Another round of listening sessions will take place at the end of the year and a third round will be scheduled next spring.
"I think that's been a hallmark of my superintendency, to engage our community," Gordon said. "It's really about trying to make sure that we're engaging all aspects of our community. My new chief communications officer, Scott Harvey, and I have been working closely together to develop a wide-ranging communication strategy and communication plan for our district. We're excited about being able to hear from our community members about our schools."
Gordon said the first round of listening sessions will cover a broad spectrum of topics.
"We want people to tell us about D-303, about what's working along with maybe some of the challenges and other things that they want us to know," he said.
During the recent board retreat, Gordon made the observation that "COVID has polarized our communities." He thinks the listening sessions will help bring the community together.
"I think that it's something that's missing not just in education, but in our communities, where we spend time actually listening to each other as opposed to shouting at each other," he said. "There's just a different dynamic when you're sitting across the table from somebody and you're looking at them and you're having a conversation about the topic at hand. ... I think this is just an opportunity to start that conversation and really hear from their neighbors about some of the things that are on their mind about D-303 and about schools."
Gordon knows that not everyone will be happy with the district's new COVID-19 protocols when students go back to school this month. Board members approved the COVID-19 mitigation plan during a special board meeting July 25.
Board members also approved a plan by the district not to begin the school year with SHIELD testing. District 303 previously had been contracting with the University of Illinois SHIELD to conduct weekly screening tests. The test is a PCR saliva test.
"Schools can do a lot of great things," Gordon said. "But I think one of the things that we learned that we're not fantastic at is being a health clinic for a large number of students. When we're having to test hundreds, if not thousands, of young people and staff, it becomes overwhelming for an organization that's true mission is about educating students."
Gordon said the decision to end SHIELD testing was not taken lightly.
"We spent hours having conversations," he said. "Vaccines are available for school age students and for our staff and community members and there are also treatments available. We encourage people who want to wear a mask to wear a mask. If that is a choice they want to make, we're going to have your back every day of the week. We're going to support that."
He noted that only a small percentage of students and staff were being tested at the end of the year.
"We knew we were not going to make everybody happy," Gordon said. "But we did it with the best intent of making sure that we were doing right by each of our students, each of our staff members and our community, knowing that there are other resources and tools outside of the school district that people can access."
In addition, students no longer will be spread apart 3 or 6 feet in their classes or at lunch. Physical distancing is no longer required for schools by the Illinois State Board of Education, Illinois Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
"Overall, it is going to feel a little bit more like pre-COVID in our schools," Gordon said. "It is moving back to a more pre-COVID schooling environment while recognizing we're going to continue engaging with the Kane County Health Department and listening to health experts."
Gordon also said he wants to work with the board to achieve its goal of moving D-303 from a really good school district to a great school district for every D-303 student.
"It's also about getting the organization ready to take on a strategic plan," he said. "That's one of those pieces that are critical, I believe, to a school district, to really have an understanding of where we're going and defining what is a great school district for us and then putting steps in place for us to achieve those outcomes."