Inside Kevin Russell’s office, not a single pen or piece of paper was out of place on his desk or conference table. A large portrait of his family, featuring his wife, Melissa, and their seven children, all dressed in perfectly matched spring outfits, is hung on a white wall near the room’s entrance. A smaller collection of photos, sports memorabilia and other knickknacks occupy a big bookcase on the other side.
A little over a month has passed since Russell began his term as the new superintendent at Downers Grove Grade School District 58. When the Board of Education hired him for the position in April, Russell didn’t hesitate to jump right in. From there, he started attending board meetings to have a better grasp on districtwide issues. He visited staff at their respective school buildings and spoke one-on-one with key stakeholders. More than anything, he wanted the chance to hear their thoughts, ideas and concerns.
It was all a balancing act, Russell said. In the weeks leading up to his July 1 start date, he was closing the chapter on his role as superintendent at Chicago Ridge School District 127.5 while weaving in his new responsibilities in District 58.
“I am grateful that I’m not doing two jobs at once anymore,” Russell said, laughing, settling into this chair. “It’s nice to focus on just one school district.”
Though District 127.5 and District 58 are only a 30-minute drive from each other, they seem like worlds apart.
Located in the south suburbs, Chicago Ridge School District 127.5 serves about 1,550 students, pulling in families from Chicago Ridge and portions of Oak Lawn. The district is comprised of two elementary schools and one middle school.
At District 58, its student body population clocks in at 5,000, almost four times larger than District 127.5. District 58 is made up of 11 elementary schools and two middle schools, and aside from Downers Grove, it brings in families from parts of Darien, Lisle, Lombard, Oak Brook, Westmont and Russell’s hometown of Woodridge.
Russell, however, has an advantage. Before he became a school administrator, he kicked off his career at O’Neill Middle School, first as a student teacher. Under his mentor and former social students teacher Rich Samonte, he learned what it meant to be an educator.
Like his own family, Russell saw firsthand that District 58 was “one big family,” and having that support system – which trickled down from the administration to active parents – plays a key role in students’ success, he said.
In the past 20 years, Russell’s role as a leader changed, opening up his eyes to see beyond the classroom. At Community Consolidated School District 181 in Clarendon Hills, Russell was the superintendent of learning and director of curriculum, assessment and instruction. He also became an assistant principal at Clarendon Hills Middle School and principal of Walker Elementary School, which are both in District 181, before becoming a superintendent.
“The best thing about being an educator, whether you’re a teacher or whether you’re the superintendent, is that ‘it matters,’ ” said Russell, as he referenced a quote from renowned educator Todd Whitaker. “The hardest thing about being a teacher or a superintendent: it matters.
“As a parent of seven myself,” he continued, “my kids are the most important thing to me.” “And, so, the decisions that we make on the behalf of other people’s children are very important. That comes with a lot of pressure.”
That pressure could be from a financial standpoint. Russell said he stays alert and up-to-date about the conversations taking place in Springfield that affect state funding for education.
Aside from that, he, school board members and district staff are ironing out the details on a master facility plan for the elementary and middle schools. The multimillion dollar renovation projects, which are expected to take place in the years to come, include maintenance and capital improvements, and are crucial to students’ learning experiences, growth, health and wellness.
Beyond that, Russell and his colleagues are constantly thinking about students’ needs.
“The role of public school has changed, and it’s evolved,” he said. “We are now expected to not just teach children, but to really provide a lot of services that there may not have been a need for 20, 30, 40 years ago, whether that’s social work services, whether that’s providing breakfast and lunch.”
Again, Russell leans on the meaning of family. Building better relationships with students, staff, faculty, local elected officials and community organizations can strengthen the backbone of the school district, he said.
“Even if sometimes our parents are sharing things that they’re not satisfied with, I still welcome that because it makes us a stronger school district,” he said. “We are very grateful that our families are involved at the level that they are involved at.”
With the first day of school just around the corner, Russell’s social media feed is already layered with snapshots of his colleagues – each post sealed with a hashtag “dg58 learns” and “d58 pride.” Those tweets, Russell said, are all part of his goal to tell the story of his beloved district.
“Just that excitement around the first day of school, there is nothing like it in any other profession,” Russell said, adding that he still feels that energy, that excitement like his children and his students feel. “The fact that we get to do it over and over again is just something that’s so unique about education.”