Rolling Meadows High School Principal Eileen Hart is capping off her 12-year run with a bang. Not only did Hart welcome first lady Jill Biden and Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona to the school in November, she was also named 2023 Illinois High School Principal of the Year by the Illinois Principals Association.
Hart is retiring from the school at the end of this school year, leaving behind an inclusive community she helped cultivate.
“I just hope people at this school continue to take student interaction to the next level,” Hart said. “There’s definitely a part of retiring that’s bittersweet but much more sweet — this district allowed me to dream.”
Gina Seaton, a Rolling Meadows special education teacher who primarily works with students on the autism spectrum, said Hart has been instrumental in bridging the gap between students in the special education program and their peers.
For example, the school has a store where students in graphic design classes sell T-shirts and rally towels they create. Students in the special education program work in the store and fill orders, which helps them develop communication and leadership skills.
“Kids on the autism spectrum are generally limited with career pathway type courses but because of Eileen’s vision, there are more avenues for them,” Seaton said.
Prior to Hart’s tenure, Rolling Meadows High School had only one class to help students on the autism spectrum with social communication skills and executive functioning. But a newer program called Fine Arts Workshop, a collaboration between Seaton and Hart, takes those skills further.
Seaton said half of the class includes students on the autism spectrum who work with classmates on various projects and activities.
Much of Hart’s commitment to special education began when she was hired as an instructional assistant in special education 33 years ago, working with students at Wheeling High School.
Hart said her passion led her to create opportunities for students with varied interests and needs using education pathways.
Education pathways, funded in part by an Illinois State Board of Education grant, are built for students to explore future careers while in high school by providing them with resources and classes to try new things.
Six years ago, Hart toured the Cook County Farm Bureau, the county’s largest general farm organization, and saw the positive impact of agriculture and sustainability on society.
“I really wanted to bring that into the high school,” she said. “I was able to hire two creative teachers to create an agriculture pathway.” Within that pathway is a food science course and an agricultural biology class.
According to Lazaro Lopez, associate superintendent of District 214, Rolling Meadows High School is one of the only high schools offering an agriculture pathway in north Cook County. He said Hart also secured the funding to build a state-of-the-art greenhouse and recruit staff for its upkeep.
“During her tenure, Eileen has led with courage and conviction, turning around years of stagnant academic growth (and) expanding access to early college opportunities,” Lopez said.
He said her work implementing nationally recognized career pathways earned her recognition from the Illinois Leadership Council for Agricultural Education as the 2022 Advocacy Award recipient.
Hart said her goal in creating the pathways is to pique students’ interests in areas they wouldn’t otherwise experience.
“Students are brilliant; they’ll find their way. But they have to first see what they want to be a part of,” she said. “When they walk in our lab and see a high-mileage car that was built by students or they go to the greenhouse and they see what sustainability and food science means, that’s how it becomes really inclusive.”
Another one of Hart’s visions is the school’s therapy dog program, which has been around for four years and is offered once a semester after school and is open to all district students and staff.
“The dogs are just everything — if you were to do a measurement of emotional well-being for staff and students, the dogs have just been instrumental, especially up in student services,” Seaton said. “I’m at my desk right now and my desk partner behind me is Cash.”
Cash is one of the therapy dogs used to train students and staff to be a handler.
Therapy animals, unlike service animals or emotional support animals, are privately owned and visit facilities and places to provide affection and comfort to people. Students and staff can also enroll their own dogs in the high school’s program to be trained as therapy dogs.
Hart said her own dog, Riley, is one of the pups going through training. “We probably have 16 teachers now and their dogs trained, and we rotate coming in,” she said.
Seaton said the dogs are also available for emotional support. “The dogs are brought to the office whenever a student is having an emotionally tough time, which has been frequent since the pandemic,” she said. “When the dogs are here, their faces brighten up. If it wasn’t for Eileen, we wouldn’t have these four-legged creatures walking around creating a better environment.”
Rolling Meadows career and technical education teacher Dave Wietrzak nominated Hart for the Principal of the Year award, citing her dedication to diversity, equity and inclusion and a curriculum that recognizes cultural differences.
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“Eileen is insightful and respected by students and staff,” he said. “(She) has been an effective leader and has positively impacted our school because of her work ethic, personality and desire to improve our school’s culture for the betterment of students.”
Megan Kelly, District 214′s director of academic programs and pathways, will replace Hart.
The Illinois Principals Association said in a statement that its award recognizes a person who demonstrates a positive impact on education and advocacy for children, ensures the school climate is positive, reflects high staff and student morale, involves the community in the life of the school and uses community resources for students.
“Eileen has a proven track record of providing effective, student-centered leadership for her entire learning organization,” the group said. “While there was an outstanding pool of nominees, her innovation, service and dedication to her students put her at the top.”
Hart said that although the award was an “absolute and total surprise,” listening to teachers has been the key to the school’s success.
“It’s about working in collaboration on the dream because it’s going to be awesome,” Hart said. “That’s why we are here.”