Like many young Irish Catholic boys growing up on the South Side of Chicago in the early 1960s, young Tim Scanlon dreamed of becoming a priest. Then, in the fifth grade, Scanlon met a girl at a skating party at St. Michael’s Parish. So much for the priesthood.
“I held her hand [while] skating and that was pretty much it,” Scanlon said.
So, Scanlon decided to become a teacher.
On June 29, the 57-year-old Scanlon cleared out his second-floor office at Riverside-Brookfield High School and retired after a 31-year career as a teacher and administrator – the last 10 as the assistant principal for curriculum and instruction at RBHS.
During his years at RBHS, Scanlon had as much influence as anyone in shaping the school.
He was in the middle of almost every major development since 2002, and he played a major role in implementing the programs that raised the academic profile of RBHS to unprecedented heights under the leadership of former Superintendent/Principal Jack Baldermann.
Scanlon was Baldermann’s right-hand man and he executed many of Baldermann’s grand ideas.
“Jack was the sizzle, Tim was the steak,” said former District 208 school board President Larry Herbst, who served on the school board for three terms and was on the board for nine of Scanlon’s 10 years at RBHS. “Tim was the one who implemented everything. Tim was the one that worked with the faculty to get them to buy into the curricular development that we instituted over those 10 years. Tim has been the driving force.”
Scanlon’s key role in so many aspects of RBHS has made him a controversial figure at times. He can be a pugnacious and no-holds-barred infighter, who vigorously defended the school and administration when he felt it was being attacked. Some felt he was a bully.
But, he wielded immense power within the building, especially with teachers.
RBHS Principal Pamela Bylsma, who has worked with Scanlon for the past two years, praised his work with curriculum and his skill at motivating teachers to grow as professionals by encouraging them to pursue advanced degrees, create groundbreaking curriculum and participate in research projects.
“Tim’s true gift is his ability to inspire the teachers to see their unlimited potential for personal and professional growth,” Bylsma said in an email. “In short, Tim has been a transformational leader, and RBHS will benefit from his influence for years to come.”
Scanlon played perhaps his most important role in staff development. He worked very closely with teachers and played a key role in recruiting, hiring and training teachers. He re-established and formalized a mentoring program for new teachers.
Scanlon and Baldermann developed an in-house staff development program where teachers could earn hours for salary lane advancement by participating in workshops held at the school.
Initially, teachers could earn the equivalent of one credit hour for salary lane purposes for every 15 hours spent on in-house staff development. These “continuing education units” are counted as graduate school credit hours for salary lane purposes, within limits.
“How that formula was worked out was that universities provide teachers with one hour of graduate credit for 15 hours of classroom work, so that same exact formula was applied to our staff development,” Scanlon said.
In the most recent contract, teachers have to put in 20 hours of time on internal staff development to earn the equivalent of one graduate school credit hour. Teachers are limited to earning no more than nine continuing education credits for internal staff development.
Teachers attended workshops before school, after school, on institute days and sometimes even during “lunch-and-learn” sessions in Scanlon’s office. The lunch-and-learn sessions were not a big part of the program, Scanlon said, accounting for a “minuscule amount of staff development opportunities.”
Scanlon also played a key organizing and strategic role in both the successful 2006 building referendum and the unsuccessful 2011 operating rate increase referendum. He attended meetings and worked closely with the citizens groups supporting each referendum.
Some say he crossed the line in 2011, claiming he helped use school resources to advocate for yes votes. Scanlon played a role in RBTV producing and broadcasting for free a “Vote Yes” advertisement, which Scanlon characterized as a public service announcement. The ad stopped running after the Landmark ran a story about it.
The Landmark in 2011 also reported on an effort during school hours to recruit students to volunteer as referendum advocates. The practice was quashed by then-Interim Superintendent David Bonnette.
A result of those kinds of incidents was a lawsuit, filed after the defeat of the 2011 referendum, claiming school officials used public resources to advocate for the referendum. A judge threw out most of the suit, which is hanging by a slender reed, pending a hearing later this month.
Scanlon said that he was not concerned about the lawsuit, in which the district is the defendant.
“I have nothing to do with lawsuit,” Scanlon said.
Scanlon was also a key figure in the three-year renovation and expansion of the RBHS. In addition to helping organize the campaign for the referendum that paved the way for the project, he also served during construction as the liaison between the architects and the construction manager and the school’s staff. He worked long hours, led meetings, had an office full of blueprints and had a role in making all decisions.
At the official ceremony celebrating the restored and expanded building in 2010, Scanlon helped cut a ceremonial ribbon in recognition of his role. Then-school board President James Marciniak praised Scanlon for his hard work and dedication to the project.
Scanlon came to RBHS in 2002, just one year after Baldermann was hired. Baldermann created a new position, director of staff development for Scanlon, with whom he had worked at Carl Sandburg High School in Orland Park – Baldermann had been the principal and Scanlon a teacher. Immediately before coming to RBHS, Scanlon was a division head at Andrew High School, which is in the same school district as Sandburg.
Two years after coming to RBHS, Scanlon became an assistant principal, when Bill Lehotsky retired.
Scanlon started his career as a high school English teacher at his alma mater, St. Rita. He was at St. Rita for 14 years, including two years he spent teaching at a bush school in Uganda while serving as lay missionary.
Scanlon served as interim principal at RBHS during the 2009-10 school year, after Baldermann resigned. He played a key role in keeping the school stable during Baldermann’s rocky final year at RBHS.
While RBHS was “a very high-functioning high school” when he arrived on the scene, said Scanlon, he and Baldermann were determined to move RBHS, as Baldermann liked to say, from good to great.
They decided to eliminate lower-level, basic classes geared toward slow learners and vastly increased number of Advanced Placement classes.
“We realized that kids in those lower-level classes are never going to be challenged unless we push them from the bottom up towards academic level or honors level or AP,” Scanlon said. “When I came here there were basic level classes; there are none now.”
When Scanlon arrived at RBHS, Advanced Placement classes were only offered in four or five departments. Last year the school offered 24 AP classes, and most students are encouraged to take at least one AP class.
“We’re pretty much nationally recognized for our levels of AP participation,” Scanlon said. “Our interest is giving kids that challenging college experience in the high school setting. It’s about challenging kids, challenging kids, challenging kids.”
Scanlon championed interdisciplinary learning and team teaching. He was the driving force behind the School for Environmental Education (SEE Team), which will return next year after a one-year hiatus. He implemented writing and reading across the curriculum, making sure those skills were taught and emphasized in all classes regardless of subject matter.
By the mid-2000s, RBHS was recognized as an extremely high-performing high school. Newsweek magazine consistently ranked it as one of the very best high schools in Illinois.
“Our academic improvement has been significant,” Scanlon said.
But some have criticized the Newsweek rankings, noting that it only measured the number of students taking AP classes and not their success in the classes. Some parents felt that too many kids were pressured into taking too many AP classes.
Scanlon typically preferred to operate behind the scenes and let Baldermann and, later, Bonnette, act as the public face of the school.
“I used to be fond of saying [that] I’d rather be the ward committeeman than the alderman, but Jack certainly liked being the alderman,” Scanlon said. “I liked being inside and not having to deal with some of the public claims on your time.”
This year he kept a low profile under the district’s new superintendent, Kevin Skinkis.
Scanlon is a man of wide interests. He is passionate about his Catholic faith, Irish heritage and the Chicago White Sox. He is a reader, interested in history, politics and social movements. Service is a big part of his life.
“I’m definitely a Democrat at heart and a labor person at heart,” Scanlon said. “I believe labor organizations and any group of people that get together for a common good is very powerful, whether it be a school, a community, a labor union or the Democratic Party.”
In retirement he will volunteer for Catholic Charities, working in a food pantry. He also will have more time to spend with his 21-year-old daughter and 8-year-old son.
But leaving RBHS is difficult after 10 years.
“It’s very bittersweet,” Scanlon said. “There’s a sense of limbo right now as I kind of transition between stages. I’ve had past health issues, so I welcome it from that perspective. I think it will be good for me health-wise, but I’m going to miss these people. I’m so delighted I had the chance to work at RB. It’s been certainly the pinnacle of my career.”