On July 1, Nicholas Polyak took over as superintendent of Leyden District 212.
He earned a bachelor’s degree in math and secondary education from Augustana College in 1999, a master’s degree in Educational Administration from Governor’s State University in 2003 and a doctoral degree in Educational Leadership and Supervision from Loyola University in 2007. At District 212 Polyak will oversee 550 employee, 3,500 students and an annual budget of about $65 million.
Q. You started off as a math teacher? Why?
A. I saw teaching as a way you could be influential in the life of kids. Math was my strongest subject. I thought I would carry that through.
A. I had some really good teachers who were influential in junior high, high school and college. Father Ray Foster at Joliet Catholic High School. My locker was right outside his classroom door for four years. He took an interest. He cared about the students and our well-being.
Q. Was teaching your first job?
A. When in college, I worked for Upward Bound. It was for underprivileged kids. I lived in dorms with a group of students for the summer. I’d teach, tutor and take them to events in the evenings.
Q. You started your career at Lincoln-Way High School District 210 in Frankfort, Illinois. You went from math teacher to dean to assistant principal to director of instruction and staff development in ten years. It seems you moved up the academic ladder rather quickly?
A. In the early 2000’s, Will County was one of the fastest growing counties in the country. Homes were being built, schools were being built. In 1999, there were 5,500 kids in one high school. When I left 10 years later, there were 7,200 kids with four high schools. I was surely in the right place at the right time when it came to opportunities.
Q. You next became superintendent of Illinois Valley Center School District 321, in western Illinois. Why the change?
A. I finished my doctorate in 2007 and had my superintendent endorsement. The superintendent I worked for, who was kind of legendary, was in his 70s and had just signed a new 5-year contract. I had to look elsewhere for opportunities. We looked at Illinois Valley Central. It’s near Galesburg, where my wife’s parents lived and she grew up.
Q. What are you most proud of accomplishing during your four years there?
A. We put $500,000 of new technology – smart boards, projectors – in the classrooms. The local community gave $250,000. We completed a five-year strategic plan with the community. We had to weather a lot of financial difficulties because of the financing from the state of Illinois.
Q. How did the state’s financial challenges impact District 321?
A. My first year, we cut $1.5 million out of the budget. In the last year we cut another $600,000. For 2013 we were spending at the same level as 2005 but losing over $1 million a year. In those situations you have to make tough decisions about the amounts of service, quality of service and number of people.
Q. What challenges does District 212 face?
A. Dealing with the same financial situation from the state that everyone is. Transitioning to Common Core learning standards. The switch in evaluation systems for teachers and principals.
Q. Any goals for Leyden District 212?
A. My job is to look, listen and learn. It would be presumptuous to think I could come in here with big changes when I don’t have a firm understanding of everything yet. I’ll ask a lot of questions, meet with people and be highly visible in schools and the community.