The world Chris Grode starts his new job as the Columbia School District’s superintendent in is very different than the one that existed when he was hired in February.
But he is still planning to become a part of his new community as much as he can – even while the coronavirus pandemic has so drastically altered life.
“I’m looking forward to meeting all of the teachers here (and) all of the community members here,” Grode said in an introductory video posted on the district’s Facebook page.
Grode, who replaces retired superintendent Gina Segobiano, had worked as superintendent of the Murphysboro School District since 2007.
He also worked as assistant superintendent of finance in the Canton School District and an administrator in the Gavin School District.
He grew up in, and his career began, in Lake County.
One of the reasons Grode said he liked the opportunity to come to Columbia is the school district is somewhat similar in size and composition to Murphysboro’s, but he has already noticed some differences.
“The communities are quite different,” observed Grode, who recently moved to Columbia with his family. “It’s been a welcome change. It’s really been nice.”
As much as his approach to people remains the same, Grode acknowledged the COVID-19 pandemic has made his new job more difficult since he started last Wednesday.
“It’s full steam running. Even if I was not transitioning to a new job, it’s still a new world that we’re living in with this pandemic and the (Illinois State Board of Education) guidance,” Grode said. “It’s tough for anyone.”
Grode, who earned a specialist degree in educational leadership from Northern Illinois University along with a master’s from DePaul University and a bachelor’s from Illinois State University, explained that being an educator during the pandemic is especially difficult because of how fluid the situation is.
The government frequently edits guidelines after releasing them, and sometimes pushback in the form of lawsuits throws them in doubt.
“I don’t think I’ve ever dealt with anything this complex,” Grode assessed.
There is also the knowledge that remote learning may resume at any point in the coming school year, which has led to the district purchasing a Google Chromebook for each student.
When in-person learning can occur, Grode said Illinois guidelines force leaders to get creative.
For example, the state caps occupancy of a single space to 50 people, and it treats a gym the same as a bus in terms of that capacity limit.
“One of the things that I’ve been trying to figure out is, when we come up with what we’re doing, there’s going to be a certain amount that doesn’t make sense,” Grode explained, noting the district must still communicate that to the community. “It’s frustrating and hard when you’re trying to obey the rules and you don’t understand them completely. I don’t see the congruency by saying the inside dimensions of a bus are the same as the inside dimensions of a gymnasium.”
Grode said a key to tackling these issues, and balancing safety and education needs during the pandemic in general, is working with teachers.
“You do what you believe is best, and what I believe is best is to allow the buildings and the teachers in the buildings to work with their administration to find good solutions,” Grode said. “Then it’s the process of trying to provide them the resources or the items that they need.”
As he navigates coronavirus-related challenges, Grode said he also aims to meet everyone in the district and work with his team to ensure there is a collaborative culture.
“One person can’t have all the answers. You work with a bunch of people, and you take a little bit from this and a little bit from that,” he said. “We all grow together, and it becomes special.”
Grode’s other goals include maintaining efficiency and fiscal responsibility in the district.
When he is not working, Grode said he likes spending time with family.
“My children growing up is the most rewarding thing to see,” he said in the video. “I think it’s why I got into education – watching children grow, seeing them evolve and watching the families.”
Grode has been married to his wife, Lisa, for 22 years. They met when he was a sixth grade science teacher and she was a sixth grade special education resource teacher.
“We co-taught very well, and the relationship grew out of that,” Grode recounted in the video.
The couple has three children: 20-year-old Matthew, 18-year-old Michael and Maxwell, who is entering his freshman year at Columbia High School this year.
Matthew and Michael are both in college.
In addition to his family, Grode said he also likes playing golf and relaxing at home.
“I enjoy taking it easy and enjoying life,” he said. “I enjoy watching the sunsets off of Bluff Road. It’s just the little things when you have downtime.”