Charles McCormick, Kaneland superintendent, retires

By on June 11, 2010

by Jessica Corbett
Kaneland Krier Editor

It was 1997, just before 9 a.m. on a Tuesday morning—an ordinary day in the Kaneland district office. Dr. Charles McCormick, then the Associate Superintendent for Business, sat in Dr. Dennis Dunton’s office, curious about why he had been called in to speak with the superintendent.

Dunton instructed McCormick to return to his office, because the School Board president, Richard Samuelson, would be calling him. At exactly 9 a.m., the phone on his desk rang.

The purpose of Samuelson’s call was simple: Dunton planned to retire, and McCormick would be offered the position of superintendent. McCormick was surprised by the offer, as he didn’t have the proper certification for the job.

“I was in the program to get the certificate,” McCormick said.

He asked Samuelson if the district planned to conduct interviews for the position, but Samuelson assured him, “we feel we’ve interviewed you for three years.”

McCormick accepted and was operatively in charge of the district, though until his administrative certification was complete, the director of the Fox Valley Career Center was available to sign the paperwork and consult, if necessary.

McCormick’s background
Just as his rise to superintendent came unexpectedly, McCormick’s career path had also changed course. He had begun his college career with aspirations of becoming clinical psychologist, and he credits his background in business and psychology with providing him with an “alternate perspective” when faced with tough decisions.

In June of 1971, he graduated cum laude from the University of Rochester in western New York, near his childhood home and the Finger Lakes.

“(The University of Rochester is the) smallest research university in the country and has high academic standards,” McCormick said. “I was a competitive golfer in high school, and they put me on the golf team. I got a great education there.”

McCormick said that when he received his bachelor degree in psychology, he didn’t realize how difficult it was to be accepted into graduate school for that area of study. He chose to attend Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, because his advisor at Rochester had graduated from NIU and “he knew I could get in there.”

In June 1973, he received a Masters’ Degree from NIU and became a volunteer in the residential youth home for boys for DeKalb County Special Education Association, where he “did classroom management.”

From there, he worked for the DuPage County Health Department, and in 1975, he began work with the Northwestern Illinois Association, where he developed behavior management programs for public schools, and he continued to work for NIA, through the Sycamore school district, until 1986. As a behavior management specialist, and with his clinical psychology background, he developed behavior management protocol and programs.

He moved into school administration in 1986, when he began working for DeKalb Community School District as Associate Superintendent for Business, and then moved to Kaneland in 1994.

Flash-forward to present day: McCormick has served as Kaneland’s superintendent for the last 12 years and has worked for the district since July 1, 1994. And as this school year comes to a close, so will McCormick’s superintendency. He will be succeeded by Dr. Jeff Schuler, the current Associate Superintendent.

“My last day of work is June 11, and my last day of pay is June 30,” McCormick said. “I’ve told Dr. (Jeff) Schuler that at 3:31 on June 11, he’s in charge.”

“I would rather know now then on June 11,” Schuler said, smiling. “Come June 11, at 3:31 p.m., we will be ready for the transition.”

McCormick’s Legacy
The man who oversaw the rapid expansion of Kaneland has left behind a legacy that has shaped the district. Yet despite all the changes the district has seen in the past 12 years, McCormick said he couldn’t claim sole responsibility or credit.

“In this job, there isn’t anything you really accomplish on your own,” he said. “You can’t say (these accomplishments happened) because I was here, it happened while I was here. It’s really the work of the whole Kaneland community working together—including citizens.”

Though McCormick is modest about his role in Kaneland’s growth and development over the years, Schuler and his colleagues doled out praise.

“I think any leader in a school system is measured by the legacy that they leave behind,” Schuler said. “Dr. McCormick has left behind a legacy.”

Schuler said that there are five major developments McCormick has accomplished in his time as superintendent, ranging from the expansion of the district to the development of student programs.

When McCormick came to Kaneland in 1994, there were two school buildings in the district, and students of all ages–from kindergarten to high school seniors–rode the same sets of buses at the same time. Today, the district has six buildings on six separate campuses, and the elementary bussing is kept separate from the middle and high school bussing.

“There were only two buildings when I came here and now we have six. That’s really pretty exciting,” Sharon Sabin, the superintendent’s secretary, said.

Schuler credited McCormick with the successful expansion of the district.

“He really has had a hand in either building infrastructure or (he has) led the process in the renovation of our facilities, and he was instrumental in securing the funding (for this construction) through referendums,” Schuler said.

“That also connects to another aspect,” Schuler said “He has built partnerships with parents and community members who have taken leadership roles in passing referendums. He’s been incredibly instrumental in building key partnerships with the School District, that help us do what we do.”

Those partnerships are created with local governments, as well as other educational groups.

“He was instrumental in helping to secure an intergovernmental agreement, which brought consistency to how each of our municipalities assess fees which help educate new students,” Schuler said.

The Kaneland district is unique in the amount of land and variety of towns it serves. Maple Park, Elburn, Sugar Grove, Virgil, Kaneville, Montgomery and parts of North Aurora are all included in the district. As subdivisions were built, new students entered the district, and the growth during McCormick’s tenure has been explosive.

“We’ve got to be prepared to educate these students,” Schuler said.

A good portion of that preparation is financial, which was a concern because “each of the municipalities worked with their own fee structure,” Schuler said. He said “we’re going to revisit this topic every couple years, but the tough work was done getting everybody on board with it.”

Schuler also credited McCormick with developing student programs.

“Any student program that has evolved in the last 12 years has happened with his support,” Schuler said. “He lets principals and key administrators take risks and develop things for kids; it all happens with his stamp of approval.”

Schuler described McCormick as “an avid supporter of the arts. He supports the development of a lot of the fine arts programs in our schools,” he said.

Through this support, and the support of the community, the Fine Arts Festival has been developed.

“I think the Fine Arts Festival is important because it showcases the talents of art in our community, but it also reminds the community that even in tough economic times, we need to continue to support those programs,” Schuler said.

The fifth element, and the one Schuler said he personally considers the biggest part of McCormick’s legacy, is that McCormick “invests a lot in building the capacity of other people. He invests a lot of time in people, and our effectiveness has a direct correlation to the quality of people we have.”

A focus on people
That focus on people has extended through McCormick’s professional relationships, including his work as a mentor.

“He has certainly been a mentor for me for the last four years. He really is a great mentor for people,” Schuler said.

Beyond district administration, McCormick has been a mentor for many teachers and students, as well. He said he enjoys “working directly with students—that can be very rewarding.”

He emphasized that an important part of his job is “making sure the citizens’ perspective is taken into account.” McCormick enjoys working with the board and the citizens advisory committees, and said, “I think I’m pretty good at processing information and listening.”

Though there are enjoyable aspects, no career is without its difficulties—especially in positions of leadership.

“There are things that become difficult,” McCormick said.

He said the most difficult situations he has experienced in his 12 years as superintendent include accidents involving student deaths and expelling students. Other difficulties are handling parent and community complaints.

“It’s not so much the substance of the issue, but the way the people are behaving,” he said.

Another challenge for the superintendent, especially in the Kaneland district, is communication.

“You have to repeat things a lot more in our setting, because we are so dispersed,” he said. “We have the phone blast, but that has tended to be only for emergencies.”

However, despite the difficulties, McCormick’s method of addressing the district leaves his peers eager to praise.

“I know that he believes very much that the success of our School District depends on the quality of people we have working here—on all levels. That’s a core belief of his, and it works all the way through the system,” Schuler said.

“He’s a great person to work for,” Sabin added. “He’s my favorite superintendent by far, and I wouldn’t say that about just anyone. He’s intelligent, kind and a good leader.”

McCormick has also worked with many teachers through his years at Kaneland, including Patty Welker, the English department head at Kaneland High School.

“The area I’ve worked with him most closely is in regards to student publications, so my experience there is that he has been a huge champion of students’ rights to responsible and free expression,” Welker said. “He really was instrumental in moving the Krier into a Tinker publication. I don’t know whether we’d be there if he wasn’t behind that.”

Welker’s other experiences with McCormick were on a more personal level.

“We’re both great readers, so we share book recommendation and swap books,” she said.

A change in leadership
Ken Dentino, math department head at Kaneland High School, said he is optimistic about the transition from McCormick’s superintendency to Schuler’s.

“Anytime there is a change in leadership, there’s always new challenges,” Dentino said. “Hopefully, the school continues to run effectively. I’m optimistic about our new leadership.”

The change in leadership set for June was not the original plan. With McCormick’s original contract, he would have retired at the end of the last school year. However, because Tom Runty, former Assistant Superintendent for Business, retired last year, McCormick and the School Board decided that extending the contract and putting off retirement for a year was best for the stability of the administration and the transition to the incoming superintendent, Dr. Jeff Schuler.

“I don’t know if I’m going to feel any more comfortable than I do right now,” McCormick said. “(The administration) is stable, well-staffed, and well-positioned for the future.”

McCormick expressed high hopes for the future of Kaneland.

“It’s all going to be growth and resource driven, other than aspects for us to get better at what we do,” he said. “I hope that the financial mess and the economy—which is affecting Kaneland—will improve, and we get more resources to work with,” he said.

McCormick also said a focus will be raising standards, politically and economically.

Future plans
McCormick currently resides in Sycamore, with his wife, Jennifer, and said he plans to spend a lot more time with the family he has scattered among Colorado, California, Illinois and New York.

“I’ve got a lot of plans,” he said. “I’ll catch up on some reading, fishing, golfing … and I do a lot of genealogical research. It’s fascinating to find the family history.”

Schuler also expressed high hopes for the future of both Kaneland and McCormick.

“I’m happy for him. Dr. McCormick has worked hard, and he deserves all the opportunities that retirement will offer him,” Schuler said. “I just have tremendous respect for him—as a quality person, and he has really been a quality mentor for me. My hopes are going to be to continue to build on the legacy that he has left.”

Photo: Dr. Charles McCormick (center) has represented Kaneland schools at school board meetings and community forums throughout his 12 years as superintendent. Krier File Photo