Getting to Know Mr. Wildes: An Interview with EPHS's New Principal

Getting to Know Mr. Wildes: An Interview with EPHS's New Principal

PHOTO: Mr. Douglas Wildes meets with members of the EPHS faculty shortly after he was hired last spring to succeed Mr. James Jennings as principal.

When students arrived at Elmwood Park High School on Aug. 16 for the start of the 2017-18 school year, they were greeted by EPHS's first new principal since 2002: Mr. Douglas Wildes.

A Wisconsin native, Mr. Wildes comes to EPHS after spending the last three years as assistant principal for curriculum and instruction at Willowbrook High School in DuPage County.

He succeeds Mr. James Jennings, who served as EPHS principal from 2002 to 2017. Mr. Jennings is now District 401's assistant superintendent for finance and operations.

From Addison Trail to Elmwood Park

Mr. Wildes earned his bachelor's degree in social science from Benedictine University and his master's in education from Northern Illinois University. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in educational administration, also from NIU.

As an educator Mr. Wildes has devoted his entire career to high school students. He spent 14 years in DuPage High School District 88, teaching social studies for nine years at Addison Trail High School, including five as department chair. During his time as a teacher, Mr. Wildes also coached football and baseball at Addison Trail.

He then moved out of the classroom to become Addison Trail's assistant principal for curriculum and instruction. He held that position for two years until he took a similar position at Willowbrook, where he remained until arriving at EPHS.

Questions & Answers with Mr. Wildes

For this article Mr. Wildes spoke with District 401's web/media specialist, Mr. Dave Porreca. An edited version of their interview appears below. Welcome to EPHS, Mr. Wildes, and good luck!

► What attracted you to the EPHS job?

MR. WILDES: A number of things, actually. I've always wanted to serve as a leader in a diverse, hard-working community. The size of Elmwood Park High School and its smaller school environment appealed to me. I like the location of the school in relation to the city and the suburbs.

I also like the idea of working in a unit district, where you can really collaborate and build a K-12 curriculum. I like the idea of coming to a school district where the administrative team and the District Office team are truly passionate and excited about taking the building and the District to the next level. Overall, Elmwood Park High School is a school that is very comfortable for me.

When I was looking for a school to serve as its principal, I wanted to find a family-based, community-based feel. From the moment I walked into the building and I met the staff, it felt like a community and a family. It felt like a culture of workers and teachers and students who want to get together and grow and work hard. Elmwood Park felt like home. 

The school is a great size where you get to know every student and teacher. You can really get to understand how students and staff work and live and really personalize the educational experience. The students and the community are a hard-working group who are excited about being great, and they want to continue to improve. So all of these pieces checked a lot of boxes off for me. I truly am humbled and blessed for this opportunity.

What are your thoughts about how the new school year has begun?

MR. WILDES: I couldn't be happier with the start of the new year! The building looks great, the students have been outstanding, and the teachers have been working incredibly hard to make the start of the school year exciting, inviting and challenging for our students.

The school spirit that the students and staff show has been amazing! I love seeing all the Black and Gold throughout the classrooms and halls, and it has been awesome seeing all the students, staff and community members at our school functions like the Black & Gold Scrimmage, Freshman Orientation, our first football game and Open House.

My favorite thing to do so far is walk the building and ask students and staff how things are going and ask for ways I can help support them. Every time, the students and staff respond with outstanding support for one another, provide honest suggestive feedback and truly reinforce for me every day how happy I am to be a part of the Tiger family!

► What are the main principles that guide you as an educational leader?

MR. WILDES: My first principle is that this building is about the students. Without them, we wouldn't be here. We have to keep the focus on the kids and what the students need. This place is about them. So we want to try to make this the best opportunity for the kids. They're only here for four years of their entire lifetime, and those years are so important for so many kids. As a building principal you want to develop the school around the students' needs.

My other principle is one that we'll work on in Elmwood Park: It's knowing that every year we have a huge student turnover. Twenty-five percent of our student population changes every year. The school can't be the same. It shouldn't be the same for the class of 2021 as it was for the class of 2017, because the kids change and the community changes and the educational environment and the needs of the professional workplace and college all change. So you have to continuously reinvent yourself and revisit educational principles and values.

So the two principles that guide me are building the school around the students and then understanding that it has to shift every year because a completely new and unique class of students will come in every August.

► District 401 is implementing an ambitious Technology Initiative. What are your thoughts about EPHS's move to 1:1 technology?

MR. WILDES: I'm super-excited about the opportunities the Technology Initiative offers to students and staff. The greater use of technology encourages teachers to ask great questions and revisit their daily instruction. It asks students to look at themselves as learners in a different way and teachers to look at themselves as instructors in a different way.

You want people to develop their understanding of their own teaching styles and learning styles. You want them to use digital tools as a resource, but technology shouldn't be the driver of what we're doing. It's not a textbook, it's not a curriculum map or a unit guide. A digital tool is just that — it's a pen or a pencil or a binder, just a digital form. It's a way that you can improve the craft of teaching and learning, and the Technology Initiative embraces that perspective.

► What motivated you to become an educator?

MR. WILDES: Working with kids. It's first and foremost working with kids, and working with kids in any capacity.

As a teacher, I loved the social sciences, but I actually went to college at first as a computer engineering major. Two years in, I realized that I didn't want to work with computers and found my real passion was working with adolescents and adults in the educational environment. To my academic adviser's displeasure, I decided to switch from computer engineering to secondary education. On top of that, I also told her I wanted to become a social studies teacher instead of a math or science teacher. 

Just working with kids and celebrating and sharing their successes and challenges has always been my drive in education, my passion. I coached football and baseball for nine years at Addison Trail. Working with kids out on the football field or the baseball diamond versus the classroom is just a different dynamic, and you build a different connection — a rapport — with kids in that way.

And now getting into administration, there’s a new dynamic. You're listening, and you're a decision maker and a facilitator and a leader of the students and the staff. So when I get the opportunities to meet with students, I'll really listen to what they need and what they feel Elmwood Park is and what we need to work on and what we need to continue to celebrate. This high school is for them, so as an administrator and the building principal it's important for me to continue to build those student connections.

► You're coming to EPHS after five years as an assistant principal in District 88 high schools. What were some of your responsibilities there?

MR. WILDES: During my five years as assistant principal for curriculum and instruction in District 88 — three at Willowbrook and two at Addison Trail — I had many different responsibilities, from building the master schedule to evaluating teachers to organizing student leadership groups to managing registration and summer school. I did a lot of work in curriculum and instruction. I observed roughly 25 teachers every year across all subject areas.

I worked on a few staff pilot programs — for example, their 1:1 technology pilot in District 88. I also oversaw a number of departments, including English, Social Studies, Art, World Language, Literacy and Guidance. I also helped with the student course selection and staffing the building.

I worked on developing districtwide common assessments as well as implementing various assessment and instruction practices across buildings. I also worked on what was called "Curriculum Council" — where course offerings and graduation requirements were visited and the council made recommendations to the Board of Education on requirements and course sequencing.

► Before you became an assistant principal, you taught social studies. What courses did you teach, and did you have a favorite?

MR. WILDES: At Addison Trail, I taught world history and U.S. history, economics and psychology. My favorite class to teach was an interdisciplinary course called Freshman Studies. It was a team of teachers — a world history teacher, a science teacher, an English teacher, a math teacher, a special ed teacher and a reading instructor, all working with about 90 students.

This smaller learning community (SLC) teaching model is a fantastic way to help transition students from middle school to high school. As a teacher in an SLC, you get to teach your subject matter, make interdisciplinary academic connections, and you also get to build students' social and emotional skills. You get to teach adolescents those academic and behavioral habits that will prepare students to be successful in high school.

In an interdisciplinary Freshman Studies SLC, I was able to team teach my subject matter of the day with a science teacher or English teacher or math teacher. Concepts and skills weren't just something the students were learning in my classroom. They were able to apply it to multiple classrooms, so it was a lot of fun. And of course you get to work and collaborate with other teachers and professionals as well. So I really loved that program as a teacher.

► Besides being the new EPHS principal, you're also working on your doctorate. How is your dissertation going, and what topic are you focusing on?

MR. WILDES: I'm about three chapters in. The dissertation is focusing on the freshman transition from middle school to high school, particularly looking at students who are struggling learners or at risk for high school graduation when they come in, and trying to figure out a way to get them college or career ready. My research approach is qualitative — a lot of interviews.

► What interested you about the transition from middle school to high school?

MR. WILDES: There's a group of students every year who will enter high school needing summer school and intervention-based programming. Within that group there's a smaller number who will eventually not only complete high school but will make it to the point where they're ready for college. And so they make huge academic and behavioral and social-emotional strides. 

So I'm trying to figure out exactly what role their freshman year plays in that big jump from middle school, where a student goes from being a struggling learner to completing high school and being ready to go to college. I really want to take a look at that 9th-grade year — the teachers, the programming, anything that really impacted these students and got them on the right path to being successful.

► How would you apply your insights on this topic to EPHS?

MR. WILDES: It’s a piece for me that when you look at graduation rates and student successes and their post-secondary pursuits and opportunities, you have to look at all four years of high school. But in addition you want to take a look at how successful the kids were after their first year as a freshman at Elmwood Park.

And if kids are struggling, we try to identify why. Are there things we can control in the building? Are there things that we can work on with Elm Middle School to make sure that kids have the skill sets and have the behavioral skills to be successful coming into high school?

So there’s a lot of collaboration and articulation of work between the middle school and the high school to make sure that the successful transition is there for the kids.

► Some students leave District 401 after middle school to attend other high schools in the area. What could be done to attract those students to EPHS?

MR. WILDES: There are a lot of great schools in and around the area, so it's important for us to articulate well with Elm and make sure that we sell and advertise all of our successes and accomplishments and the programs that we offer to all of our students, whether they’re the students who are college bound and highly academically motivated to even any of the struggling learners and various students everywhere in between.

It’s really important for us to take a look at our community — at our community needs, our family needs, our student needs — and say, OK, what does Elmwood Park High School need to provide that we're not providing? And we should ask that question as a general question to every student who's planning on graduating or is going to graduate from Elm: What does Elmwood Park need to provide you to make your four years of high school as successful as they can possibly be?

We have to figure it out — we have to ask questions and talk to the parents about why are you going to X or Y school and why not Elmwood Park? The piece, though, is if you ask the question you have to be ready for the answer. And if there's an answer that they're providing — well, then, we have to work on that. We have to be OK with getting that feedback. If there's a student population that’s not choosing Elmwood Park because of something, we have to take a look at that and address that issue.

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