Dr. Susan Zola was named Unit 4 Schools’ new superintendent today. Zola previously was the assistant superintendent for achievement, curriculum and instruction. She succeeds Judy Wiegand, who is retiring at the end of the school year.
Zola is a 27-year employee of Unit 4. She was principal at Dr. Howard Elementary before serving in various roles with Unit 4 administration, including director of the school choice program. She later was principal at Jefferson Middle School from 2003-12.
Previously Zola was a second-grade teacher in Chicago and worked in Urbana schools before joining Unit 4. She holds a bachelor’s degree and a master’s from Eastern Illinois and obtained her doctorate from the University of Illinois.
Chambanamoms sat down with Zola for a discussion of Unit 4’s future. Comments have been edited for clarity and conciseness.
Q: Congratulations. You’ve had a lengthy career within Unit 4. How does that prepare you for your new position?
A: This is my 32nd year in the profession; my teaching experience is in Urbana and my administrative is 27 years, all in Champaign. So I think part of the context it allows me to bring is a sense of the history of our community and of the district. I feel that with Dr. Wiegand’s leadership and the passage of the referendum that we’re on an upswing in terms of the community’s belief in our work and their community to help us succeed. I think it’s a really positive entry point for the next superintendent in terms of the work that still has to be done and the potential for what that could mean to our community.
Q: Regarding the referendum and the new project, what attributes do you bring to that situation?
A: I’ve had opportunities when we did the rebuilding of the elementary campuses. I’ve had the opportunity to be at the table with the construction managers and the architects. But I think my strength in the renovations of the high schools and middle schools and the rest of the elementary campuses is to bring that teaching and learning lens. We want to focus on not only the actual structure, but that we’re thinking that, at the end of the day, we have a space that really allows our students and faculty to work at a premier, state-of-the-art, 21st century learning experience. The best example is the STEM labs. What more might that look like for a teacher and a 21st century STEM lab experience, and what do we need to do in the next four to five years to ensure that our teachers are ready to move into that new instructional space and that students are prepared to take on that work on a different level.
Q: Were you involved in this area with the renovations at the elementary schools?
A: Correct. Part of the pre-construction work is vetting out the needs of the stakeholders and how that aligns to the design work prior to the construction. That’s a very common model to go out to talk to staff about their needs, talk with directors with special programming, the office staff and security needs. How do we make sure parents have easy drop-off and pickup? All of those different nuances that system-wise, if you’re not thoughtful, can start the day on a not-so-positive note.
And then to think long-term about the ability to have a cafeteria and a gymnasium and what that might mean for the community — in terms of partnerships with the park district, with the Boys and Girls Club, and with other community groups that might want to utilize those spaces.
Q: Once the $183 million project is complete, with that be the end of the construction phase for a while?
A: I think the work of attending to our schools will always be a part of the conversation. One of the next things the superintendent would want to do with the board and stakeholders is to build a strategic plan. The last strategic plan was done several years ago and done very well and served its purpose. As a part of that work, I would envision there would be a section that we’ll talk about the facilities work. I’m co-leading a Tier I group right now that is looking at middle school capacity. This board is being very thoughtful, and Dr. Wiegand has been very thoughtful, about that long-range planning. That will be part of my role in the next several years, to make sure those pieces are in place for the next 10 to 20 years.
Q: In terms of the school of choice program, what direction would you like to see it head?
A: I was the initial director of choice, so I’m very familiar with the work and how we got to that place. We’re getting to a point now, after 17 years or so, where we’re asking the question, ‘Is it meeting all our needs? Is it producing the outcomes we set forth?’ I think early on, as we take a look at, we’ll be able to say that these are some things that are working, these are some things that we need to revisit. It’s a very unique model. Most of us had a neighborhood school that we went to. In our community that brings on some unique opportunities and challenges in that a lot of our housing partners are somewhat homogeneous, so that might be reflected in the neighborhood school. Right now one of the things we try to do with choice is balance the socioeconomic (factors). I think part of the work of the new superintendent in the next year or two is to vet out the model itself, and for whom it’s working well and for whom — whatever goals are set forth by the board itself. And then to either revisit options or if it’s a model that is supporting our work and our families. Then there are probably some nuances to make sure we have 12 good choices.
Q: State funding: How will you steward Unit 4 through what it obviously a very challenging environment?
A: Part of the opportunity I’ve had in my work as assistant superintendent is oversee federal and some of the state grants. So I’m familiar with some of that, and that landscape is changing, too. Part of the thoughtfulness — and this is the model that has worked well for Unit 4 — is to be very fiscally conservative in our decision-making. Because there are so many unknowns with pension reform, with tax caps … our EAV (equalized assessed value) is as strong as can be. I think we’re blessed to be in a community with a strong EAV. Mr. Lockman and the board and Dr. Wiegand have been very thoughtful about some decision-making around being fiscally attentive. And I think that would be a model that we would want to continue.
Q: Regarding the racial climate within the schools, and in particular the high schools, how do you feel about that climate right now and how can it move in a positive direction in the future?
A: Currently, most of my work is focused on the elementary campuses. So my experience at the high school level has been sort of two-fold: Our children went through, and had very good experiences, surrounding themselves with a very diverse group of friends. As a parent, we valued having a diverse group of friends. My most recent walk-throughs at the high school were very positive as well. That being said, part of the learning for the new superintendent will be to get back in the places where I’m not as familiar with, and those would be the middle schools and the high schools. Part of the work will be to simply listen to the various stakeholders: student voice, teacher voice, staff voice, administrative voice, parent voice.
We certainly know we have equity issues academically, and so if a part of that work is to also look at the culture and climate of our secondary campuses, that would certainly be something I’d be comfortable being a part of.
Q: Schools in many ways are a reflection of the community. Do you feel there’s a component to this of being very involved in what’s going on in the community?
A: We’ve had this opportunity at the exec level because Dr. Wiegand has really allowed us to meet with the coalition, meet with the minister alliance, meet with the city or the chamber or the park district. There’s a lot of collaboration right now, the best example being the Tier II committee and the number of people who sat around the table — the MTDs, the city of Savoy, Bondville — there were a lot of representative voices. I believe that strong schools are reflective of a strong community. That being said, you also are beginning to see initiatives that begin to look at meeting the needs of whole child and whole family. We had the community schools conversation, the promise plan conversation, there’s 21st century grant work that’s happening, Boys and Girls Clubs partnerships that are on the cusp of growing. So I think that’s a very common space for a superintendent in a community of this size to continue to reach out to the various partners that recognize if everyone can give a bit, we can make healthier families. And healthier families are going to allow us to be in a better space for their learning.
Q: What else do think is important for parents and the community to know?
A: I think it should be clear that Champaign-Urbana is our home, and our family has been very committed to the community — my husband since 1978 when he came from Cornell, and I’ve been in the community since ’84. We’ve raised our children here, he’s been at the university, and I’ve been in the school systems for the last 32 years. So this is home. And I think when you work from the lens of being a parent, being a teacher, being an administrator and recognizing this is your community, every day you’re going to show up and roll your sleeves up and give 110 percent. Because you know who everyone is. And when you leave, as Dr. Wiegand is, you leave knowing you’ve given everything you could and that hopefully the work you’ve been a part of have left the community and schools in a better place.