Dr. Stephanie Helfand misses greeting students each morning at The Joseph Sears School in Kenilworth.
The interim assistant principal and future principal at the pre-kindergarten-eighth grade school yearns to hear the students tickle the ivories of the piano located near the building’s front entrance again.
She also craves for the other familiar and delightful sounds of the hallways’ soundtrack on school days, notably the dueling choruses of chatter and laughter.
“It’s like we’re in a movie now, all of us, and the virus is a villain bringing about darkness,” Helfand says of living amid pandemic fears and uncertainties. “I look forward to getting to the other side of this, the end of this bad movie. I look forward to the light. We’ll be changed in so many ways, some for the better. I look forward to being together again … in communities, as a country.
“This period of time,” she adds, “although tragic, stressful, and in some cases, devastating, may also be looked at like a pause—a needed one—in our busy lives.”
But The Joseph Sears School community—staff, teachers, students, and families of students— doesn’t feature a PAUSE button. It pooled its steely commitment and altruism and launched The Giving Back Project at the dawn of the pandemic, on March 23.
It’s a four-pronged project: Giving Technology Support, Giving Connections, Giving Food, and Giving Supplies. And it was lauded in an April 9 letter from State Superintendent of Education Dr. Carmen I. Ayala to her Illinois State Board of Education colleagues.
Among The Giving Back Project’s aims is to find unused, working technology and redistribute it to schools and students in need of it for remote learning purposes. It also provides virtual community activities that promote social interaction; supplies food to pantries, and coordinates meal deliveries to those in need; and assembles and delivers comfort kits (containing a greeting card, hand cream, lip balm, and sweet treats, among other items) to Emergency First Responders at local hospitals and health clinics.
No wonder the four cornerstones of The Joseph Sears School—founded in 1899 and named Chicago Magazine’s top PK-8 suburban elementary and middle school in Cook County, in 2019—are Responsibility, Kindness, Honesty, and Respect.
“One of our missions at Sears School is to leverage our nearly 500 students’ energy to do great things for other people,” Helfand says, adding the portrait of a Sears School student is that of a fearless learner, a creative thinker, a courageous advocate, and a compassionate citizen. “We set out to deliver a personalized educational experience that empowers and challenges each student to grow academically and develop personally.
“As an educator, as well as a leader, I like to recognize what our school does well and say, ‘Let’s do more of that.’ ”
Other vital members of Sears School’s administrative team—Dr. Lisa Leali (acting superintendent), Drs. Gary Zabilka and Roger Prosise (interim principals), and Dr. Carrie De La Cruz and Ms. Ali Hecimovich (interim directors of student services)—steer with a similar focus.
“All of us strive to amplify the good in this great community,” Helfand says.
Dr. Helfand, a former special and general education elementary and middle school teacher, was serving New Trier High School as its chief technology officer when she met with NTHS Superintendent Paul Sally last summer. The gettogether made her realize, “I need to be in a profession where I work more closely with students.”
One week later she heard about an opening at The Joseph Sears School and applied for it. Kenilworth School District 38 voted on March 4 to appoint Helfand the next principal at the school.
“Paul Sally,” says the Upper Iowa University-Des Moines graduate,” is a wonderful mentor, a phenomenal leader; his ability to lead is one of his many strengths. He gave me an opportunity to find my way back to working with students, and I’ll always be grateful for that.”
Dr. Ronald Warwick, professor of Educational Leadership at Concordia University Chicago, also inspired Helfand, particularly after Helfand had earned a master’s degree at the school in River Forest.
“He came up to me, shortly after the birth of my son [Anderson, now 10] and told me, ‘You’re doing that, right? You’re going to get your doctorate,’” the collaborative leader recalls. “Well, I did that … did it blindly. It was difficult. But Dr. Warwick was there for me, every step of the way. He made sure I was on track to complete my doctorate. We think similarly. We have to see the big picture of something and then drill down from there to take care of the details.
“We both need that overarching vision of something before we start anything that’s challenging.”
Warwick praised Helfand and other graduate students for their feedback and discussion on the Acknowledgements page of his 2015 book, The Challenge for School Leaders: A New Way of Thinking About Leadership.
The second oldest of nine children while growing up in rural Iowa, Helfand lives in Long Grove with her husband, Colin, their two children (Anderson and daughter Izzy, 14), Colin’s parents, Robert and Suzanne Helfand, and a Goldendoodle named Pumpkin.
“My in-laws,” Helfand says, “taught me how to be a mom, a wife, and a good family person. They’re such good role models.”
Izzy wants to attend Harvard University—she has already researched the Ivy League school— and become a lawyer in order to help others. Anderson loves dancing (hip-hop and breakdancing, specifically) and art, and has a strong desire to pursue a career as a professional choreographer.
“We’ve talked a lot about love with our children,” Helfand says. “We’ve told them that it’s important to love yourselves, to love others, and to be able to be loved by others.
“We’ve also stressed the importance of having a purpose in life, while doing something meaningful.”
Sounds a lot like what their mother is doing.
For more information about The Giving Back Project at The Joseph Sears School and ways to submit requests to it, visit kenilworth38.org.