After two years in which he has thoroughly restructured the top administration of Oak Park and River Forest High School – both structurally and with new hires – District 200 Superintendent Attila Weninger is turning his focus to a new opportunity to reshape the school’s leadership culture.
By the time OPRF opens one year from now, Weninger will have just hired five new division (subject area) chairs. And his idea of the role of a division chair is considerably broader than the tradition at OPRF where the chair’s focus was almost exclusively inward on department matters.
“I think the division heads generally should serve two roles, two purposes. One is certainly for his or her own division to be a leader within that division relating to all aspects of the division-curricular, instructional, personnel, managerial. It’s the individual responsible for the sum total of the division,” said Weninger in an interview with Wednesday Journal last week. “But the second larger or general role is to be an administrative leader within the school and not just an advocate for the division.”
The superintendent said he wants division chairs to be involved in all aspects of improving the school. Decisions about school facilities, he noted for instance, is an area in which they can have greater input.
This is not the first time a superintendent has tried to integrate the division chairs more fully into the school’s administrative team, said Rich Deptuch, an OPRF veteran who retired in 2004 after 38 years at the school. Across those decades Deptuch worked as a math teacher, math division chair (1981-1992) before closing out his career as assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
While supportive of Weninger’s goals, Deptuch recalled the controversial tenure of Superintendent George Gustafson who served three eventful years from 1988 to 1991 as both superintendent and principal.
Under Gustafson, the school began consolidating divisions, and changed their leadership title from division heads to division chairs. Gustafson also wanted to include chairs in more school wide issues. They previously had not been involved in such matters, said Deptuch
That change received mixed reviews, he said. Some chairs embraced the effort. Others resisted because much of their time and attention was focused on being teachers and department heads, with little focus on larger school issues. Along with that, Deptuch said many department chairs didn’t feel Gustafson took their advice when asked.
“There was a feeling that, well, why should I give my opinion if administration is going to do whatever they want anyway,” he recalled, noting that despite that frustration, the division chairs generally supported the administration’s decisions.
Due to a final rush of retirements under the state’s lucrative early retirement plan, by next summer Weninger will have hired six new administrators, including five division chairs responsible for English, fine and applied arts, special education, library/media services, and math.
Weninger said he’s expressed his changed vision of the division chair role to the current department heads and will make this broader involvement an expectation for new hires. He noted that many of the department heads chosen in past years had been teachers at the school. He stressed that during the hiring process he will look for candidates who share his outlook and will consider both qualified internal but also external candidates. “As new chairs have come in, we’ve made it very clear in the interview process, as well as when they begin that that’s what the expectation is,” he said. “That is something we definitely want to have in place because we’re now, over a three-year period, going to have seven division heads – plus two assistant principals who function like division heads – in place. So that leadership change is pretty critical.”
During his two years as superintendent, Weninger has also hired a principal and restructured the deans and counselors to work more closely on their student caseloads.
Deptuch said his late career move to top administration gave him a greater appreciation for looking at larger issues outside a single department.
“I became a member of ‘they,'” Deptuch said, referring to how division chairs viewed administration. “Even as a chair, when they were involved in school-wide decisions, it was still from the standpoint of what impact will this have on my division.”
The former math chair said he supports Weninger’s effort, and agrees that there will have to be a change in the school’s culture. But that will happen, Deptuch noted, if department heads feel their voices are heard. He added that it would be good for department chairs to understand the other divisions.
Weninger said he still expects division chairs to advocate for their department, for instance, when course scheduling is done for the following school year.
“I expect division heads to come to the table and advocate. But at the same time, at the end of the day when we have to make decisions that affect the entire student body and the entire master schedule, I would expect the division heads would understand that sometimes those decisions are going to impact what they advocated and they may not be able to get what they came to the table with,” he said.”