Growing up in suburban Des Plaines, R.J. Gravel wanted to live a life in song.
He enrolled at NIU in the fall of 2001 to major in music education and vocal performance, but something happened before classes began in August that would change his tune.
“My first leadership position was before I was even a freshman,” says Gravel, now the assistant superintendent for Business Services in Glenbrook High Schools District 225.
“I was looking for a work-study job, and there was one in the residence halls as an operations person at the front desk,” he adds. “They called me in July and offered me a supervisor’s job, which was the coolest thing ever. It was in Neptune North – the Fine Arts house – and I got to move in early. I started right away with cleaning up the operations.”
Even as Gravel simultaneously took part-time jobs as a church music director, first at St. Mary in Sycamore and later at St. Catherine in Genoa, he discovered that his work in Neptune was appealing to an instinct he hadn’t nurtured before.
A new major became necessary.
“From an academic side, I found that I still loved music,” he says, “but that I also had a passion for organizational and governmental management. I got a B.A. in political science in the public administration world of things.”
Since then, Gravel has stayed true to following his passions, wherever they lead.
His résumé opens with St. Bede the Venerable in Chicago, where he worked as director of liturgical music on the church side and as a music educator on the school side.
The proverbial “other duties as assigned” included pitching in as the tech guy, which launched him on his next path – one that led to Johnsburg School District 12, where he served as director of Instructional Technology. It’s also where he met his wife, Melanie, now the principal of Gary D. Wright Elementary School in Hampshire.
“Originally, Johnsburg had a department of one-and-a-half,” he says with a laugh. “I was given a very limited budget, and told, ‘We want to have the best technology use in our classrooms that we can make happen,’ which was an interesting challenge because it was almost out of the Stone Age.”
But “working in the archdiocese, you learn to stretch a dollar,” he adds. “In five years, we had smartboards and interactive projectors in every elementary classroom, a wireless network everywhere and huge access to the Internet. We did that for nothing in terms of budget – less than $100,000 a year.”
Meanwhile, Gravel also has stayed loyal to NIU.
Gravel now holds an M.S.Ed. in Instructional Technology (2009), an Ed.D. in Instructional Technology (2014), an M.S.Ed. in School Business Management (2016) and an Ed.S. in Educational Administration (2019). He currently is pursuing additional coursework in public management and finance.
“That’s what the definition of lifelong learning is,” he says.
Understanding his “why,” however, opens another door.
“Professionals have many different ways to approach the development of themselves. Many folks sign up for conferences or workshops,” he says.
“But when it comes to my own learning path, I learn best in a structured environment that allows engagement and conversation; that provides opportunities to challenge myself to research, to stay in tune with different trends, and then to summarize those trends with feedback. When it comes to the intellectual development of ourselves, we really don’t get that type of feedback except in a classroom setting.”
Rather than registering for “a workshop here or a course there,” he prefers “to invest the same amount of money in courses that are either trending in an area of interest of mine, or in our school district priorities, to really get something back for the investment of my time and financial resources.”
NIU provides exactly that, Gravel says.
He clearly saw it in his Educational Administration programs, where his faculty brought relevant and current practice from working in school districts.
“Compare that to canned course content that has been recycled, not updated, by people with degrees in the field who have never stepped in with the parent in a screaming situation,” he says. “NIU is about practitioners, and it’s about developing future leaders. You don’t have that everywhere else.”
And he saw it in his Instructional Technology programs, where he loved courses in user experience taught by Fatih Demir – “His understanding of the industry is impeccable and amazing,” Gravel says – and reveled in the broad variety of pedigrees and perspectives among his classmates.
“We had so many different folks in there,” he says. “A microbiologist. A broadcaster. People in the Ph.D. program.”
Gravel’s current gig in Glenbrook began in 2016, where he started as director of Technology Services, an area that he now oversees in addition to business and fiscal services, student enrollment, operations, safety and security, transportation and food services.
The district enrolls 5,300 students between its two campuses, which routinely make Top 10 lists of Illinois high schools.
“Every day brings new celebrations and challenges,” he says. “We all have heard of the challenges that have emerged through the years – safety and security, financial, legislative mandates – and as our kids mature, and as new children come in to our schools, with diverse and different backgrounds that require different levels of support. No two days are the same.”
Now with his superintendent license in his pocket, Gravel he’s not ready to make that move.
“I love being the doer. I love the flexibility to lead initiatives from start to finish,” he says.
“As a superintendent, a lot of work has to be delegated to assistant superintendents. I get to own my initiatives. I get to own my projects,” he adds. “I get to work hand-in-hand with students and teachers every day, which keeps me close to the classroom.”