Two new principals have brought some new energy, and at times, a different way of doing things this year to two elementary schools in Riverside.
Todd Gierman, the new principal at Ames School, and Pete Gatz, the new principal at Central School, are getting to know their students, staff and community. Neither had been a principal before, but both came from assistant principal positions at much larger schools.
They like the smaller, more intimate quality of their current schools.
“Heaven,” said Gierman of the size of Ames School compared to the roughly 1,200-student Daniel Burnham School in Cicero where he was last year. “When I walked into the lunchroom I wondered where the rest of the kids were. I find myself being able to get to know the parents a lot quicker, get to know the students a lot quicker. I’m out there in the school more than I could at a school of that size.”
Gierman walked into a difficult situation at Ames, replacing Colleen Lieggi, who resigned at the end of the last school year after months of controversy. It was no secret that Lieggi, who had been at the school 12 years, had strong support among a substantial number of Ames parents and teachers, who felt that she was railroaded. Other parents and a few teachers were happy to see her go.
Gierman says he is focused on the future, not the past.
“Obviously I had some concerns, knowing that the community may be divided, the staff may be divided,” Gierman said. “Have teachers come to me over concerns over things that may have happened in the past? Yes. All I do is listen.
“It’s time to move forward,” he added. “I haven’t encountered a lot of difficulties with it. … When you have a leader of 12 years that’s going to happen everywhere.”
Gierman has implemented some changes that parents and teachers have noticed. Parents are no longer allowed to park right in front of the school and drop in for a few minutes. Orange cones are set up in there and the no parking rule is strictly enforced by Riverside police.
He has also cracked down on parent access to classrooms. All adults who are not staff members must sign in and wear yellow stickers when they enter Ames. Under Lieggi things were more informal and some parents unexpectedly strolled into their child’s classroom.
“I’m very big on security,” Gierman said. “I want to know at any given time who is in my building.”
Gierman is out in front the school every morning, opening car doors and greeting parents and students. He said he doesn’t like to spend a lot of time in his office.
“I don’t like sitting in my office on the computer or on the phone,” said Gierman. “Once I think I’m doing that too long I’ll set a timer on my phone so it goes off and I can get out of there. I spend a lot my time walking the halls; I like to be visible. I walk through my teachers’ classrooms at least once a week, sometimes twice — two or three minute walk-throughs I call them.”
Gierman knows that Ames students did very well academically at Ames under Lieggi and that he will be expected to match that performance.
“I’m walking into a situation where I’m at a high-performing school, and I need to maintain that level of high performance,” Gierman said.
One change Ames parents have noted is that after-school activities such as Irish Dance and Fun and Fitness are no longer offered at Ames by Ames teachers. The programs were run by teachers, and parents paid the teachers directly.
The new central office administrative team decided the programs could only be offered at district schools if the staff member teaching the program could provide a certificate of insurance. The Irish Dance class has moved to the North Riverside Village Commons and the Fun and Fitness class is not being offered any more.
At Central School the changes have been harder to notice as Gatz replaces Janice Limperis, who retired in June.
Gatz is energetic. He, too, goes outside and greets parents in the morning and afternoon. He is more visible than Limperis, who also had significant district-wide responsibilities under former superintendent Jonathan Lamberson.
Gatz has two young daughters, which helps him relate to parents.
“I think he is going to be a really good fit for the school,” said Gretchen Reyes, a parent of two Central School students. “I like the fact that he has young kids so as a parent he knows where we’re coming from. He’s out there at pick up; he’s out there at drop off.”
Formerly an assistant principal at Gregory Middle School in Naperville, Gatz said he is spending a lot of time learning before making any changes.
“I’ve done a lot of observing and had a lot of conversations,” Gatz said. “I need to have a real solid understanding of how things have been going, what they’ve done.”
Both Gatz and Gierman have less autonomy than their predecessors, as Superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis stresses consistency across the four elementary schools in the district.
“By the time the students leave the elementary school and get to Hauser the hope is that they’ve had consistent experiences,” Gatz said.
“We don’t want cookie cutter schools, but we do need consistency across our elementaries,” Gierman said.
Both new principals have said they enjoy working with District 96 parents.
“I’ve had very positive interactions with parents,” Gierman said. “I’m very fortunate that the parents in Riverside are very involved in their children’s education.”