Ask Danny Oest to name the Top 5 challenges confronting school superintendents, and he succinctly boils his list down to just two.
But they’re big ones.
“Most everything we, as school superintendents, do is based on what the budget can provide. It’s about managing with enough to do what you think is best,” Oest says.
“The number of teachers. The quality of teachers. The technology. The additional teacher aides. The instructional coaches. Everything. Everything surrounds that dollar, and that’s an ongoing challenge, both financially and personnel-wise.”
Superintendents must “keep everyone engaged,” he advises. “You have to involve the public, the various stakeholders and the board of education in honest and transparent dialogue about what they value. That will steer the dollars where they need to go.”
Conquering the second issue on his list will require a broader community of thought and action.
“We have a teacher shortage that’s becoming more commonplace, not just in Illinois but across the country,” Oest says.
“It’s something that will have to be addressed systematically. How do we improve ‘up’ on that? How do we make it a more attractive profession? We’ve lifted the Basic Skills Test. We’ve modified the minimum salary requirements. We’re going to have do something to attract high quality teachers to go into the field and to stay in the field.”
Preparing tomorrow’s educational leaders to make those kinds of decisions is what energizes Oest now.
He joined the NIU College of Education as a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations in the fall of 2017 after his retirement from the dual districts in McHenry County.
Long familiar with NIU – he earned his M.S.Ed. and Ed.D. degrees here, married Cynthia in Sycamore and lived in DeKalb while teaching in Hinckley-Big Rock CUSD 429 – he started to teach as an adjunct during the 2016-17 academic year.
“During my last year of service as a superintendent, I noticed that NIU was looking for someone,” Oest says. “I knew I still had some energy, interest, passion and enthusiasm to get back to the field, and what an opportunity for me to oversee the superintendent prep program that I had admired and been a part of. It just a great opportunity, and aligned well for me.”
Oest’s story begins in tiny Cuba, Ill., located in west-central Fulton County. (Oddly enough, he also briefly lived in nearby Havana, Ill., during his early adolescence.)
An identical twin – his brother’s name is Denny – he found encouragement from “the village.”
“My teachers took me aside and said, ‘You have some talents, and you need to go forward and pursue your passion.’ I always had a desire to teach and coach,” he says. “I had an opportunity to do a co-op during my senior year of high school, where I taught physical education at the elementary school for half a day.”
The co-op provided real-world experience and real-world pay to the brothers.
Danny and Denny, who worked his half-days at the local supermarket, earned scholarships to the local community college. They played one year of basketball there together until Danny transferred to Greenville College in southern Illinois, where he joined its hoops team for a year.
Unfortunately, their eventual reunion in Macomb originated from tragedy back home in Cuba.
“One of our teachers died in a terrible car accident – just a horrible car accident – and he left my twin and me as his TRS beneficiaries,” Oest says. “That’s what allowed us to continue to go to school, and we transferred to Western Illinois University. My major was essentially physical education with a minor in health and an emphasis in math.”
Beginning his career in 1984, he taught for two years in Athens, Ill., before relocating to northern Illinois with Cynthia, who grew up in the Genoa-Kingston area.
His administrative journey took him to Richmond, where he served as a principal long before returning for the top job in 2005. His career as a superintendent began in 1996 in Miller Township Community Consolidated School District 210 in Marseilles, and continued on in Spring Valley Central Consolidated School District 99 and Hall Township High School District 502.
The dual role with Richmond-Burton and Nippersink began in 2007.
“Serving as shared superintendent was quite a challenge, but something that I felt was desired by the community, supported by the community and supported by both boards of education,” Oest says. “There are about a dozen districts throughout the state with shared superintendents, and I feel proud of what we were able to accomplish while functioning similarly as a unit district.”
His nearly three decades of administrative work, meanwhile, have proven that he must prepare his NIU students for “the never-ending saga” of financial hurdles, unfunded legislative mandates and the especially tough personnel situations “because you’re dealing with people’s lives.”
Yet he is confident that his doctoral students are up to the task.
NIU’s program provides “a great balance of the practical and the research theory,” Oest says, and strong faculty whose interactions with the candidates in their local schools “keeps us relevant and real about the demands of those professions.”
Even the students themselves add value to the program’s effectiveness.
“I learn from them each and every day. We have them from rural Illinois as well as from suburban Illinois and from Chicago. We’ve got a mix – diverse in so many ways – and although they bring similar issues to the table, they provide a variety of ideas and solutions,” he says.
“They’re not settling for the status quo. They’re being true instructional leaders, and not just managers. I believe in that, and I respect that. Time after time, their thoughts – their responses – turn back to keep the students in mind. I’m encouraged by that,” he adds. “They’ll be extremely visionary leaders, and I find it rewarding to be part of helping shaped their thoughts and ideas about school leadership.”