Q&A with EPHS's New Assistant Principal, Ms. Kyleen Coia

Q&A with EPHS's New Assistant Principal, Ms. Kyleen Coia

Assistant Principal Ms. Kyleen Coia spent two years as an EPHS dean of students before beginning her new job this summer. (District 401 photo by Dave Porreca)

Elmwood Park High School's new assistant principal, Ms. Kyleen Coia, is beginning her 12th year in education and her third year in District 401. She was previously a dean of students at EPHS from 2016 to 2018.

She arrived in Elmwood Park after working for six years in Cicero School District 99: first as a school social worker at Wilson Elementary (2010-13) and Unity Junior High (2013-14), then as a supervisor/behavior interventionist in D99's Emotional Supports Program (2014-15) and assistant principal at Unity (2015-16).

Ms. Coia graduated from Aurora with a bachelor's degree in social work. She later earned two master's degrees: one in school social work from the University of Illinois at Chicago, and another in educational leadership from Concordia University Chicago.

After receiving her undergraduate degree, Ms. Coia began her career in education as a school social worker for The Menta Group at Fox Tech & Trade Center, an alternative therapeutic day school in North Aurora. 

To learn more about Ms. Coia, including the time she tore her ACL in high school as a visiting basketball player against EPHS, District 401 web/media specialist Dave Porreca interviewed her via email.

The Q&A was conducted before Ms. Coia officially began her new job as assistant principal. An edited version of their exchange appears below.

For more information about Ms. Coia and an introduction to each of District 401's new administrators for 2018-19, please click here.

Kyleen CoiaQ: Where did you grow up?

A: I grew up in North Riverside, Illinois.

Q: What high school did you attend?

A: Riverside Brookfield High School.

Q: What are your some of your favorite memories of high school?

A: My fondest memories from high school are oddly enough not specific events that stick out in my mind, but more so the people involved in making my high school career meaningful. What I do remember vividly are the teachers who helped shape and guide my direction in life and who helped me become who I am today.

My sophomore English teacher, through her witty sense of humor, taught me to take risks in my writing, to laugh at myself when I make mistakes and to not be afraid to put myself out there. She taught me inner confidence that has helped me profoundly to this day. There were many other teachers, like her, during my high school career who helped me to discover my strengths and to continually try to improve my best self.

High school is meant to be a unique experience, tailored for each student, and now working in a high school I find great importance in making sure all students feel connected and supported to become their best selves after high school. 

Q: Were you involved in any extracurriculars that you especially enjoyed? If so, which ones?

A: In high school, I was a three-sport athlete. I played volleyball, basketball and softball. Funny twist of fate, but during my junior year while on the varsity basketball team, my team (from Riverside Brookfield) was playing against Elmwood Park H.S. at their home court (gym). I ended up tearing my ACL in the Elmwood Park Gym, which put me out of commission for the rest of the basketball and softball season my junior year. I like to tell students that story, as it connects me to Elmwood Park when I was in high school and counts for some brownie points about how tough I am.

Q: At what point did you decide to become an educator, and why? 

A: The road to becoming an educator was all through my opportunities and experiences. When I started college, I thought about becoming a travel agent. I loved to travel and thought why not get paid to help other people travel. Then came long this thing called the internet and travel sites, and I thought maybe that wasn’t such a great idea. While in college, I had an internship experience to teach middle school students through a drug awareness program, and boom! That’s when I knew I wanted to work in schools. From there on, I began my path into becoming an educator.

Q: Where did you attend college as an undergraduate?

A: I began my college career at University at Illinois at Chicago. During my sophomore year, due to funding issues they closed down my program of study. For my junior year, I transferred to Aurora University, where I received my bachelor’s in social work.

Q: For EPHS seniors who will soon be college students themselves, what advice would you give them for getting the most out of their undergraduate experience?

A: Embrace the opportunities you have during college — it is all about the experiences. Travel, study abroad, put yourself out there and meet new people, take on a new internship … experience it all! That is what will guide you. 

Q: What was your first job in education? Where was it, and what were your responsibilities?

A: My first job in education was actually as a school social worker at an alternative therapeutic day school in North Aurora. I loved this job! My responsibilities included helping support students who had been removed from their schools due to behavioral issues, suspension or expulsion with the goal of improving academic and behavioral success to reintegrate them back into their home schools.

As my first job in education, it helped me to understand the importance of students learning to develop a growth mindset, to assist them in overcoming extremely challenging situations and see success on the other side of those situations. Every day was something new and exciting and really taught me to think on my feet! First jobs are always great learning experiences!

Q: How long have you been an educator, and where else have you worked?

A: I have been in education for 11 years. The 2018-19 school year will be my 12th year. From 2007 to 2010 I was a school social worker for The Menta Group at Fox Tech & Trade Center and Hillside Academy.

Then I worked in Cicero District 99 in several roles from 2010 to 2016. I was a school social worker at Wilson Elementary (2010-13), a school social worker at Unity Junior High School (2013-14), a district supervisor / behavior interventionist in the Emotional Supports Program (2014-15) and assistant principal of Unity Junior High (2015-16). In 2016 I became a dean of students at EPHS, a position I’ve held for the past two years.

Q: What were the biggest challenges you faced in your various jobs, either positive or negative? What obstacles (if any) did you face, and how did you overcome them?

A: Every position you encounter in education comes with its challenges, but the benefits definitely outweigh any of the obstacles you face. Students are definitely the driving force behind my motivation to remain in education, and I will put in every ounce of effort I have to be able to see students feel successful.

Q: What do you like most about working with students?

A: My favorite part about teaching is definitely the ability to change the trajectory of a student’s life for the better. I value and invest in each of my students to encourage them to succeed. I see that equally as important to value and invest in our teachers and support them to be successful. Elmwood Park is full of amazing teachers who do just that and invest in our students’ success every day. 

Q: What are some of the things you’re proudest of accomplishing as an educator?

A: Watching students graduate is a pretty amazing moment as a educator, as it is the culmination of all the hard work students and teachers have invested to get to that point. It is definitely a feel-good moment to watch students embrace their diplomas while their teachers and family members proudly observe the momentous occasion.

Q: Why did you decide to move into administration?

A: Throughout my tenure in Cicero District 99, I slowly began working my way into administration with the support and guidance from my previous supervisors. Many of them encouraged me to take on leadership roles throughout my different positions (School Improvement Team, Behavior Support Team, PBIS leader, Crisis Prevention Institute district instructor), which landed me in a supervisory role of our district’s Emotional Supports Program for students with behavioral and emotional needs, and then eventually led me to the assistant principal role at the junior high in Cicero. For me, it didn’t necessarily feel like a decision to leave teaching, but more so an opportunity to make an impact on a greater scale for both teachers and students. 

Q: What graduate-level academic work have you done to prepare yourself as an administrator?

A: I have completed two master’s programs — one in school social work (at UIC) and the other in educational leadership (Concordia University). 

Q: What attracted you to the EPHS dean position two years ago?

A: I began my educational career working with high-school-aged students in an alternative setting, which I loved! When I was hired in Cicero District 99, it allowed me the opportunity to work with students from early childhood through 8th grade. Much of my career has been focused on working with students with behavioral and emotional challenges, which seemed to lend itself well to the possibility of becoming a dean at Elmwood Park High School. [EPHS has two deans of students.]

The dean’s position also allowed me to reconnect with high-school-aged students, which really seems to be the best fit for me. During my interview, Mr. Jennings [James Jennings, then EPHS principal, now assistant superintendent for finance & operations] asked what I would do if I got the dean’s position. I told him I would do a cartwheel down the hallway out of excitement! (I am still waiting for him to ask me to pony up on that answer.) It has been a blessing to be hired at Elmwood Park, and I have enjoyed being a dean here. It is bittersweet to be transitioning roles and moving out of the Deans’ Office into the Main Office, but I am sure I will visit often!

Q: What have been your responsibilities here as a dean?

A: The dean’s position at EPHS encompasses much more than just discipline. The Deans’ Office does handle discipline, but it also supports the follow responsibilities:  

  • Tardies/attendance
  • Tiger Support Team — the school’s student intervention and support team
  • Social and emotional learning (SEL) in coordination with the Social Justice League
  • Transportation
  • Supervision of athletics and extracurricular events
  • Teacher evaluations
  • School improvement planning
  • Student mentoring
  • Section 504 plans
  • Crisis planning
  • Supervision of the Special Education Department

Q: I know you’ve taken a leadership role with the Social Justice League and with D401’s move toward incorporating social and emotional learning and restorative justice. For those who aren’t familiar with any of those terms, could you give us some background? Let’s start with SEL — “social and emotional learning.” What’s SEL, and how does it differ from other kinds of learning?

A: Social and emotional learning (SEL) is really our methodology in instructing students on emotional Intelligence, which really encompasses those “soft skills” that colleges and employers look for, such as teamwork abilities, handling disappointment, effective communication both verbal and nonverbal, setting goals, problem solving, etc. 

According to CASEL (Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning), the guru agency leading the charge in social and emotional learning, they describe SEL as the process through which children acquire and effectively apply the knowledge, attitudes and skills necessary to understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions.

Q: How is District 401 incorporating SEL? And how does the District’s Social Justice League relate to that?

A: District 401 is in the development phases of a multi-year initiative related to providing a continuum of SEL supports districtwide, from early childhood through high school. The District’s vision is to seamlessly integrate SEL into the academic environment by using  research-based programs, along with staff development, to teach students the social and emotional skills they need to be successful learners.

The ultimate goal is to have an interconnected, districtwide set of social/emotional standards with a common language, common behavioral expectations and a learned set of social/emotional skills that are being explicitly taught districtwide. 

District 401 has adopted five core social/emotional competencies, encompassing self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, relationship skills and responsible decision-making. These core competencies will lay the foundation for instruction on social/emotional skills at each grade level. Additionally, the District is working toward building a responsive multi-tiered system of supports to identify at-risk students and target interventions based upon the students’ individual needs.

Last year, the District formed a Social Justice League Committee to support the social/emotional learning initiatives and to align the District’s efforts to Illinois Senate Bill 100. This law, enacted in September 2016, states that schools should provide appropriate and available interventions and supports to students demonstrating social, emotional or behavioral difficulties.

The committee is comprised of a cross-section of District personnel, including District Office administrators, school administrators, teachers, school social workers, speech therapists and other service staff members. Over the past two years, the committee has been working diligently to identify a worthy curriculum that can be embedded into teachers’ daily instruction.

Q: On a related matter, what is "restorative justice"? How does it differ from other approaches schools have taken to deal with student behavioral issues?

A: Restorative justice is a philosophical approach to strengthen the school and classrooms through community building circles that foster healthy relationships, empower restorative mediations and is grounded in positive discipline approaches. Restorative practices are based on principles and processes that emphasize the importance of positive relationships as central to building community and repairing relationships when harm has occurred.

Restorative justice represents a paradigm shift that focuses on the harm done, rather than on the rule broken, within school communities. The use of restorative practices is a reflective process that encourages personal responsibility, giving a voice both to the person harmed as well as the person who caused the harm. It aids in the acceptance of cultural differences by offering an equitable process where all members of a community feel valued and heard, and in turn, are more likely to bring their best self to the community. 

Q: For some time now, District 401 schools have used “PBIS” — Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports — to set expectations for student behavior. How does restorative justice relate to PBIS?

A: Restorative justice is a philosophical approach to developing community, and PBIS is a system of positive expectations and structures that supports that community.

Q: How does restorative justice relate to the Social Justice League and SEL?

A: Restorative justice is a foundational approach to creating a safe, accepting and nurturing environment that fosters both academic and social/emotional learning. We know that if our school is going to reach our academic goals, we need to also focus efforts on students’ social/emotional health, while also ensuring that students have a safe and restorative environment that fosters learning. The Social Justice League is working toward weaving restorative philosophies and social/emotional instruction to create a rounded SEL experience for our students. 

Q: What has your own role been in relation to SJL, SEL and restorative justice?

A: My role has really been more of a facilitator of the process to engage key stakeholders in investing in the foundations of SEL through leading the Social Justice League and restorative justice trainings. 

Q: Setting aside the work you’ve done with SJL, SEL and related matters, what other accomplishments are you especially proud of from your time as an EPHS dean?

A: I began as a dean right on the heels of Senate Bill 100, which mandated that all schools focus on more intervention-based supports to behavioral issues rather than exclusionary disciplinary consequences, such as out-of-school suspension. I am incredibly proud of the work our staff and school have committed to in terms of developing a support system for students that involves some of the following:

  • Tier 2 social work groups focusing on school refusal/anxiety, depression, grief, anger coping, mental health support and executive functioning
  • Integrating restorative practices and peace circles as an alternative to suspension
  • Peer mediations
  • Success resource programming to support students’ social/emotional health and to improve attendance
  • Tiger Support Team that reviews student data biweekly and develops interventions to supports students
  • Academic support and social/emotional academic labs

With these interventions, we have been able to substantially decrease our out-of-school suspensions over the past two years. 

Q: In general, what have been some of the challenges and rewards of being an EPHS dean?

A: Being a dean definitely has its rewarding moments, which I miss dearly! Through my work as a dean, I have been able to build relationships with students and invest time in supporting them grow and make positive decisions for themselves. The Deans’ Office is always a busy place, but one that is full of laughter, jokes and a safe place for students to check in with an adult. I have always prided our office on being a safe haven for some students who may need a moment to “chill” and clear their head. Being a dean has its challenges, but that is what makes the success of our students so much sweeter.

Q: What motivated you to apply for the assistant principal job?

A: Taking on the assistant principal role is bittersweet for me. I loved being a dean and all of the difficult moments that came along with it, but it felt like the right time to take the next step in my career.

Q: What will your main responsibilities be?

A: As the assistant principal there is always an ebb and flow of tasks and responsibilities that are assigned. Here are some of the items that will fall under my responsibilities:

  • Student Services Team — student interventions
  • Counseling / Social Work Department
  • Teacher evaluations
  • Climate and culture 
  • New teacher mentoring
  • Testing accommodations
  • Special Education Department support
  • School improvement planning
  • Scheduling

Q: What are some of the things you’re looking forward to about being assistant principal?

A: I have lots to look forward to in my transition to becoming assistant principal, but my priorities are to ensure that staff feel supported, that our climate in the building feels safe and welcoming and that students enjoy coming to school every day!

Q: Now that you’ve been here for two years, what are some of your general thoughts about EPHS — the school, the students, the faculty, the administration, the environment, the community?

A: The past two years working at EPHS have been amazing. The teachers here are top notch, work incredibly hard to support students and will go above and beyond to help students out. It is a pleasure working with our faculty as well as with the District administration. I feel super lucky to be able to work within this community. 

Q: What do you see as the main challenges facing EPHS during the next several years?

A: The high school, as well as the District, is embarking on an exciting transitional time where we will be focusing on many new initiatives — 1:1 technology, digital curriculum, SEL, etc. I see this as an amazing opportunity to improve our instructional practices in supporting our students’ achievement. While embarking on new initiatives take some time to perfect, I look forward to supporting our staff throughout the process.

Q: What strengths as a leader and educator do you bring to your new job? 

A: This is always a difficult question to answer, but I value good communication and try my best to be as open and transparent as possible in my role as an administrator. I hope that people see me as someone who is dependable, visible, accessible and works hard. 

Q: What are your long-term professional goals?

A: My long-term professional goals are to continue growing as an educator and to continue my work here in Elmwood Park. I am very happy with my current position and hope to spend many quality years here at the high school contributing positively to the school community. 

Q: Who have been some of your major influences and mentors as an educator?

A: I have been lucky in my career to be surrounded by amazing administrators who have pushed and encouraged me to take on leadership roles from early on. I think being around great administrators has molded me into who I am today.

Q: What advice would you give to young people interested in becoming educators themselves?

A: Education is one profession where you get to see the immediate product of your work. In my opinion, being able to work with kids is one of the most rewarding experiences there are. 

Q: What are some of your interests outside of work?

A: My favorite thing to do is travel. Every break we have from school I am always itching to go on a trip or take my son somewhere new. Some of my travel experiences include:

  • Visiting Australia in 8th grade for two weeks to play Australian Rules Football (super tough sport — you have to Google it!)
  • Backpacking through Europe for three weeks, visiting Rome, London, Amsterdam, Prague, etc.
  • Living in Guatemala for three months studying Spanish, hiking active volcanoes, visiting the jungle and climbing ancient pyramids
  • Living in Guanajuato, Mexico, for three months studying Spanish
  • Traveling to different parts of Mexico over 10 times
  • Visiting the Dominican Republic seven times studying Spanish

My hope is to continue traveling the world and take my son as a little travel buddy!

Q: Would you like to tell us anything about your family?

A: Working at Elmwood Park has been a family connection for me, as my sister-in-law, Hilary Coia (known as the other “Ms. Coia”), had been a special education teacher at EPHS for years prior to me accepting my position as dean. It has been fun to work with a family member and actually helps me relate to our students, since it’s all in the family.  My son, who is 5 years old, has come to many performances at the high school and athletic events and enjoys supporting Tiger Pride!

Some of Ms. Coia's Favorites

EPHS students and parents might enjoy some "fun facts" about their new assistant principal!

Favorite book when you were in high school?
“To Kill a Mockingbird” and “The Giver.”

Favorite book as an adult?
“Tuesdays with Morrie.”

Favorite movie when you were in high school?
“I Am Sam.” 

Favorite movie as an adult?
I watch way too many kids’ movies right now and love the movie “Coco”! However, I also enjoyed “Blood Diamond” and “Inception.” 

Favorite TV show when you were in high school?
Any shows that were on MTV (first wave of reality TV), plus “Friends” and “Survivor.”

Favorite TV show now?
I am not a huge TV watcher, but when I do I am either watching “This is Us,” “The Walking Dead” or any type of crime show. Polar opposites, right?

Favorite musical act when you were in high school?
Eminem, Nelly, ’N Sync, Dave Matthews Band and OAR were super popular when I was in high school.

Favorite musical act now?
I am a huge fan of the Beatles, but I enjoy a lot of different music such as Led Zeppelin, Kings of Leon, Pitbull, U2 and any bachata music. The only music that I would never turn on would be country music.  

Song that you will always associate with your high school years?
“Who Let the Dogs Out.” My high school mascot was the Bulldogs, and that song played on repeat for four years. It has never left my brain since.

Favorite food, then or now?
Tacos — always has been, always will be. Yum!

Favorite piece of advice or inspiration, then or now?
“Believe in yourself and all that you are. Know that there is something inside you that is greater than any obstacle.”

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