AURORA — This fall will be the first time since Kathryn Birkett was 5 years old that she will not step foot inside a school.
The superintendent of Indian Prairie School District 204, who is retiring next week, said she likely will be traveling this August. At that time of year, she’d normally be preparing for the new school year, whether as a student or as an educator.
“It’s going to be different,” she said. “I’ve been on a school calendar since I was 5 years old.”
Birkett began her career in District 204 as a teacher at Waubonsie Valley High School in 1979, a time when the school sat next to open fields.
During the next three decades, as the district went through a building boom, Birkett moved up through the ranks. She served as an assistant principal at Waubonsie Valley from 1987-1991 and principal of Steck Elementary School from 1991-1996. She then opened Neuqua Valley High School in 1996 and served as the school’s principal until 2004.
For the next three years, Birkett served as assistant superintendent for secondary education and moved over to the deputy superintendent position until she was named superintendent in 2009.
She also watched the student population triple from less than 7,000 in 1990 to more than 21,000 by 2000.
The 204 way
Throughout the highs of massive growth to the lows of the more recent challenges of cutting $40 million from the budget, Birkett said one thing remained constant: the welfare of the students. Birkett refers to it as the 204 way.
“We are constantly asking ourselves, ‘Is this what is best for students?’” she said. “We do that with day-to-day decisions or during contract negotiations.”
Even when times are tough, “teachers are teaching, and administrators are administering.”
When it came to budget cuts, the district tried to keep it away from students, and Birkett said that would not have been possible had it not been for a supportive staff.
“I can’t thank the staff enough. We all solved that problem together,” she said.
While the district and the bargaining units might not always agree, both sides respect each other. “We’re not combative like other districts,” she said.
She credits her success as superintendent to a supportive cabinet and a school board that provides direction.
The role of superintendent is changing, particularly in the political arena and the community. Birkett said the superintendent is the face of the district, and she often spent time in Springfield advocating for schools.
She said the district is fortunate to have legislators who recognize the importance of strong schools and are willing to collaborate.
Superintendents today also must be active in the community, Birkett said. She is a member of the Noon Rotary.
“By getting involved you get to know the community,” she said.
Not only is it important to give back, involvement is a way to model behavior for students and staff, and students today are much more involved in service projects.
“They get it; they get that they are a part of a greater community,” Birkett said.
She said today’s kids also are not bound by societal barriers of the past.
“This generation accepts everyone for who they are,” Birkett said.
That change, Birkett said, is because schools push for inclusion, whether welcoming special education students in traditional classrooms or assemblies that teach kids how they can be friends with someone who is different.
Birkett said the diversity of Indian Prairie is what makes the district so special. She views the student population as a microcosm of the state.
Interacting with kids
The hardest part of being superintendent can be making the right wardrobe choice, Birkett joked. She said she wouldn’t dare show up at a playoff game between two Indian Prairie high schools wearing one of the school’s colors.
That issue aside, Birkett said, her favorite activity was visiting schools and meeting with students.
She recalled how much fun she had reading to 3- and 4-year-olds in the district’s preschool program on Cinco de Mayo or sitting down with middle school students during lunch.
“I try to interact with kids whenever I can,” she said.
The year before Neuqua Valley opened, Birkett had an office at Waubonsie Valley where she worked on the logistics of setting up the high school. Birkett said she took the opportunity to talk to Waubonsie students about what they liked and what types of changes they would make.
“I learned more about kids that year than I ever learned before,” she said.
Her biggest advice to incoming superintendent Karen Sullivan is to keep a sense of humor.
“Honestly, she doesn’t need advice. She has a vast background that will benefit,” Birkett said.
May 25, graduation day for all three high schools and Birkett’s last day, will be bittersweet and a reflection of her career.
Waubonsie Valley is where Birkett started as a teacher; she opened Neuqua Valley as principal; and as superintendent, Birkett opened Metea Valley.
“I am leaving as a proud superintendent,” she concluded.