The new principal of Elm Middle School has had a swift rise through the ranks.
Ms. Rebecca Siegel arrived in District 401 as Elm's assistant principal just a year ago. Now she's leading the school as it moves into an exciting era of change.
This includes 1:1 device implementation next year — a Chromebook for every student — and a planned expansion of Elm to grades 6-8 by the start of the 2020-21 school year.
Ms. Siegel came to Elm after serving as assistant principal for culture at Amandla Charter School, which educates students in grades 5-12. In that role she focused on the overall climate of the school, which is located in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago.
Before becoming an administrator, Ms. Siegel taught 7th-grade English Language Arts at Amandla for four years. She also taught literature and writing for a year at Gage Park High School, located on the Southwest Side of the city.
She earned both of her degrees from Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago — a bachelor's in secondary education and English, and a master's in education.
To learn more about Ms. Siegel, including her time in the U.S. Marine Corps, District 401 web/media specialist Dave Porreca interviewed her via email.
The Q&A was conducted this summer after Ms. Siegel officially began her new job. An edited version of their exchange appears below.
Q: Where did you grow up?
A: Roselle, Illinois.
Q: What middle school and high school did you attend?
A: Schaumburg Christian School and Lake Park High School.
Q: Who were some of your favorite teachers in middle school or high school, and what made them your favorites?
A: My favorite teachers in high school were the ones who were passionate about the subject they were teaching.
Q: Were you involved in any extracurriculars in middle school or high school that you especially enjoyed? If so, which ones and why?
A: I played four years of soccer in high school. I played year round including indoor soccer. I enjoyed it because I excelled at it.
Q: You were in the Marines. When did you enlist?
A: I was a reservist and started my tour of duty in 2000. I finished my active reserve status in 2006. I received my honorable discharge in 2008 after serving two years of inactive duty.
Q: Why did you join?
A: I joined because I wanted to be on a path toward working in the FBI or CIA. I thought a military background would help. I joined the Marine Corps because I wanted to be part of an elite fighting force.
Q: Were you officer or enlisted? If enlisted, what was your military occupational specialty?
A: Enlisted. I was a Tactical Air Command Center Repair Specialist.
Q: Where did you do your training?
A: Parris Island, South Carolina.
Q: Where were you stationed?
A: Parris Island, S.C.; Twentynine Palms, Calif.; Fort Sheridan, Ill.; Great Lakes Naval Base, Ill.
Q: What was your final rank?
Q: Your time in the Marines overlapped with the early stages of the war in Iraq, which began in March 2003. You were called up to active duty in 2003. What can you tell us about that?
A: I was activated in January of 2003. I went to Kuwait and served in Operation Enduring Freedom until the war started, and then I was in Kuwait at the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom until July of 2003. I worked in the air wing as a Tactical Air Command Repair Specialist. This job originally focused on radios and transitioned into networking and computers just before I left for Kuwait. The main responsibility was to keep our servers up, so that our Marine operators could plan flight missions with the Air Force.
Q: What are the most positive things you gained from your service?
A: The Marine Corps taught me to strive for excellence no matter how small the task. They gave me problem-solving skills and taught me perseverance. Even when you think you have nothing left to give, there is always more.
Q: In general, looking back, are you glad you joined? Why or why not?
A: I will always be proud of my service. I think it was a good experience. It was a lot of responsibility at a young age and put me on an early path toward seeking out leadership positions.
Q: What other jobs have you held besides being a Marine and an educator?
A: Hood tech at Jiffy Lube; print and copy center at Office Depot.
Q: At what point did you decide to go into education as a career, and why?
A: I decided to change my major while I was in Kuwait during Operation Iraqi Freedom. I decided that I wanted to be a part of creating equity in education.
Q: Where did you attend college as an undergraduate?
A: Northeastern Illinois University.
Q: What was your bachelor’s degree in?
A: Secondary education and English.
Q: For Elm students who plan to attend college themselves, what advice would you give them about the college selection and application process?
A: Find a school that works for you. If you have a question, ask it. Register for classes on time.
Q: What was your first job in education? Where was it, and what were your responsibilities?
A: Paul Robeson High School in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago. I subbed there.
Q: I’m assuming you began your education career as a teacher. If that’s true, where have you taught, what years were you there, what did you teach and what grade(s)?
A: I taught freshmen thru seniors at Gage Park High School in Chicago for one year — Honors Literature, Freshman Survey Lit, Creative Writing. I taught 7th-grade English Language Arts at Amandla Charter School in Chicago for four years.
Q: What did you like most about teaching?
A: The relationships I built with my students. I cherish those.
Q: What are some of the things you’re proudest of accomplishing as a teacher?
A: I am proudest of the growth I saw in my classroom. I loved seeking out ways to engage students in learning, and when they got the skill, I was so proud of them.
Q: Why did you decide to leave teaching and move into administration?
A: I wanted to have a bigger role in making change.
Q: What graduate-level academic work have you done to prepare yourself as an administrator?
A: I have my master’s in education from Northeastern Illinois University.
Q: Besides Elm, where else have you worked as an administrator and when? What were your responsibilities?
A: I worked at Amandla Charter School for three years as an assistant principal of culture. I focused on the overall climate of the building.
Q: What were your responsibilities as Elm assistant principal?
A: I worked as the athletic director for Elm. I oversaw testing, discipline and whatever else came up along the way.
Q: What motivated you to apply for the Elm principal job?
A: I saw an opportunity to strengthen the work that has already been ongoing within the building.
Q: What will your main responsibilities be? In other words, for those who might not know what a principal actually does, how will you be spending your work day?
A: I will oversee our instructional program, supports and school improvement. I am responsible for the safety of our students. I oversee our climate and culture within the building.
Q: Although you’re embarking on your first year as Elm principal, this will be your second year overall at the school. What are some of your general thoughts about Elm — the school, the students, the faculty, the environment, the community?
A: I love working in Elmwood Park and working at Elm. I work with a staff that is student-centered. They focus on building strong relationships with students and working on supporting them as they begin to figure out who they are and what direction they want to head in life. The students keep me on my toes but are so endearing. They work hard every day. I wake up every morning excited to come to work. I feel very fortunate.
Q: What do you see as the main challenges facing Elm during the next several years?
A: Elm will be experiencing a lot of changes in the upcoming years. There is a lot of work that Elm needs to complete in order to be ready for the 2020-21 school year. We have the sixth grade heading to Elm. We are creating a new bell schedule. We are moving towards Competency-Based Learning. We have a lot to learn and a lot to prepare for.
Q: What are your strengths as an administrator?
A: I have a problem-solving focus.
Q: What is your guiding philosophy as an educator?
A: Every child can learn, and every child deserves the best we can give them.
Q: What are some of your interests outside of work?
A: I spend a lot of time on my lawn and in my garden. I play a lot of video games, specifically on my PlayStation.
Some of Ms. Siegel's Favorites
Elm students and parents might enjoy some "fun facts" about their new principal!
► Favorite book when you were in middle school?
“A Separate Peace.”
► Favorite book as an adult?
► Favorite movie when you were in middle school?
“Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”
► Favorite movie as an adult?
“On the Waterfront.”
► Favorite TV show when you were in middle school?
► Favorite TV show now?
“The Handmaid’s Tale.”
► Favorite musical act when you were in middle school?
► Favorite musical act now?
► Song that you will always associate with your time in middle school?