According to 2015 Illinois State Board of Education data, more than three out of four Illinois public school teachers are women while roughly three out of four Illinois public school district superintendents are male.
That disproportionality prompted the government watchdog group Better Government Association in a Sept. 3 report to describe the roughly 878 superintendents in the state as “mostly a men’s club.” And for minorities, who comprise only 6 percent of those top district positions according to the BGA analysis, that club is even more select.
Considering those numbers, Oak Park District 97 Superintendent Carol Kelley is a rarity wrapped in rarities. She’s not only in the small group of minority administrators who occupy superintendent seats, but her central office team and building principals are predominantly female and/or minority.
Since Kelley started on the job last July, nine people have been hired in her central office to replace employees who retired or resigned, plus one person hired to fill a newly created administrative position. All of them have been minority and/or women.
Many of the district’s seven female principals (out of a total of 10) were hired by former D97 superintendent Al Roberts, who retired last year.
“We are a rarity,” said D97 board President James Gates. There aren’t that many districts that have both an African American superintendent and an African American chief financial officer. But I don’t quite look at it that way. They just happen to be the most talented people and we’re blessed that the [administrative] team is diverse.”
Gates said that, behind a candidate’s professional qualities and values, the school board prioritizes diversity in employment at the district and expects the superintendent to implement that standard.
“[The board] can’t take all the credit,” Gates said. “The credit goes to this community, which is known to be a place where, if you’re a person who offers diversity to a school system and you’re a high-quality performer and you’re interested in working in a diverse environment, then this is a place on your radar.”
Gates also said the district has experienced an influx of “high-quality performers” coming to Oak Park from Chicago, where the public schools are in a financial crisis.
Kelley, who came to Oak Park from a school district in New Jersey — where she said she was one of just five African American superintendents in that state — echoed Gates’ observations, noting that her first concern is getting the best-qualified candidate, regardless of ethnic or gender identity.
Kelley said all of her hires came aboard after rigorous vetting. Several, like Ebonie Lofton, the district’s new director of special education, were hired after multiple candidate searches.
“The quest [is] to find someone who has the shared vision of wanting to have equitable, inclusive and positive learning environments for all D97 students,” she said. “We also want people who strive for excellence on a day-to-day basis. For those hired, they just happened to be female.”
Kelley said the district doesn’t employ hiring quotas; rather, a lot of work goes into making sure that candidate pools include diverse applicants at the outset.
The district conducted a national search after Roberts retired but still had to confront the reality that men are overrepresented in the ranks of top administrators across the country. Kelley was selected from a pool of 48 candidates, 33 of them males, according to district data released at the time.
“I don’t think you ever forget that you’re a female or minority in this role,” Kelley said. “But the role itself has universal strengths and challenges — whether you’re white or black, male or female. In general, it’s a lonely job. I honestly don’t think that, on a daily basis, [women and/or minority superintendents] are thinking about the statistics.
“I take very seriously the opportunity to mentor and support other young administrators, especially females, who have aspirations of coming into this role,” Kelley said. “I’m trying to do for others what my mentors in the past did for me.”