While in his early 20s, Dr. Barry Reilly ’89, M.S. ’95, Ph.D. ’07, was a three-sport coach and teacher at Bloomington High school. Less than two decades later he was named the district’s superintendent.
Reilly never stopped learning along the way, earning both his master’s and doctoral degrees from Illinois State’s Department of Educational Administration and Foundations (EAF).
“To start out, I never would have thought that I would go through those programs back when I received my bachelor’s degree,” he said. “I was very happy being a teacher and a coach. I coached three sports, so I was a very busy guy. I built a lot of relationships with kids, and I loved it.”
Reilly said his coaching experiences eventually became a driving factor in his decision to support students and colleagues as a school administrator.
“(Coaching) kind of helps you to develop some natural leadership skills, and I was pushed to consider ‘One day, you ought to think about being a principal.’ So that is what kind of started me in the (EAF) program,” he said.
The 2021-2022 school year will be Reilly’s 13th and final year serving in District 87’s top role. It will also mark 33 years with the district. Over that time, two district-wide accomplishments stand out in his mind the most.
During the first few years of his superintendency, the unit began a one-to-one initiative. Throughout the process, Reilly’s emphasis was on access, leading to a partnership with Frontier Communications. By 2014 the district ensured each student across grade 6-12 classrooms had a district-issued device and home internet access.
“We were the only district I am aware of in the state to provide internet access to kids at a time when no one else was doing that,” Reilly said. “We did not want them to be without that access because we felt that would widen an achievement gap.”
In 2020, the forward-thinking approach proved invaluable as the pandemic pushed the rest of the world to scramble to deliver students the necessary resources for effective remote learning.
Reilly believes his preparation in EAF is what pushed him to consider the broad ramifications of the initiative, an approach that positioned him to advocate for the needs of each learner.
“One of the things that was prompted, through the programs I went through in EAF, was to be innovative and to think beyond what’s going on, use your context to help guide you,” he said. “My context was that I am in a very diverse district. So how can we make sure that our kids have access to the same curriculum even though they may not have the same means to do so?”
Another legacy Reilly will leave includes the buildings themselves.
“If you look at our facilities, we take great care of those. We have a lot of pride in them. And we want our kids to feel like those learning environments are special,” he said. “As they come through, they know that we take this seriously, and our community as well.”
Reilly credits his predecessor and mentor, Bob Nehlsen, for beginning that work.
Much to miss
Reilly’s routine begins with a 5 a.m. workout. His days in the office extend into the late afternoon, often the evening. But each day, there is just one aspect of his work he looks forward to the most.
“It’s all about relationships with people,” he said. “We are a people business. The relationships that I’ve built over time, that’s the biggest thing that I will miss. We have a wonderful staff of people who are truly mission-oriented and really want to serve the kids in this community.”
He credits many for his growth as a leader, including his EAF professors, District 87 colleagues, and others across the state over his three-plus decades of service as a teacher, coach, assistant principal, principal, and superintendent.
“I certainly wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the effect that a handful of individuals have certainly had on me over the years,” he said.
Let it snow
Reilly admits he might feel a tinge of anxiety when Bloomington’s first major weather event hits during the 2022-2023 school year. After making the call to keep school doors open or closed for more than a decade, he’ll gladly shed that burden.
“It’s still one of the most difficult things that you have to deal with,” he said. “But quite frankly, they are small in number but high in stress level. And it’s gotten a little easier now that we have the ability to do remote learning.”
Superintendents might view the pressure of weather-related situations a little different these days. Their intensity has been dwarfed by the impact of almost every pandemic-related decision.
“Those decisions, which are still coming, have been very stressful on our board of education, my administration team, our teachers, our paraprofessionals, our food service people, our custodians,” he said.
But over the past 18 months, Reilly said he is constantly in admiration of the resolve shown by colleagues and students.
“Everybody has performed very, very well.”
The EAF connection
Reilly said most of the administrators in his district have something in common with him—they’re EAF graduates prepared to handle the challenges in a new era of school leadership.
“For the past 25 years that I have been associated with the department, I have watched it grow and strive to improve and produce outstanding people,” Reilly said. “So, without a doubt, it has been a great benefit for us.”
In fact, Reilly has said that the district has tabbed several promising educators who they consider to be “on deck” to go through EAF’s principal preparation or doctoral program in the next year or two.
“It’s great to have this in our backyard. I do not take that for granted,“ he said.
From his work across the state as a large unit district, Reilly has witnessed the department’s impact on schools outside of District 87. He regularly collaborates with leaders in the Chicago suburbs, Peoria, Springfield, and beyond.
“ISU’s EAF department is looked at as the gold standard across the state. And for good reason. All of those places benefit from what (EAF) produces,” Reilly said. “EAF prepares future leaders extremely well. That is why we’ve partnered with the principal preparation program, and that has been outstanding for us.”
The bigger picture
This partnership is anything but one-sided. In EAF’s principal preparation and doctoral programs, students from all over Illinois benefit from practical leadership opportunities and mentorship provided through District 87, as well as Unit 5.
“(We) get them embedded in those experiences, right along with our building principals, and they live it, breathe it, like anyone else. We do not hold anything back from them. We get them those quality experiences,” he said.
The potency of the partnership has only grown over time.
“ISU has really reached out to make those experiences even better for our people who are going through those programs, and I am proud that we have supported that,” he said.
After all, pulling educators out of classrooms requires district partners equally as passionate about the value of developing competent leadership, no matter where they serve. In fact, many of the students who gain experience in Reilly’s schools will not work in District 87 after they graduate.
“We understand that we all benefit from getting good leaders. And while I certainly want them here in our district, I know that even if they do not end up here, we are preparing someone who will do very well in another place and serve their kids and community well,” he said. “We can’t do that without a great partner like ISU and the EAF department. So I have been proud of that partnership and how it has grown over the years. That’s been a great thing, and I hope that our community does not take what we have here locally for granted.”
The next chapter
Once the clock ticks down on the 2021-2022 school year, Reilly is excited to spend more time with his two grandchildren, including a 9-year-old who goes to school in the district. And in January, the family is expecting a third grandchild.
He’s also going to take advantage of some well-earned “R and R.”
“I’m looking forward to a little bit of calm and quiet, which after the last year and a half is welcome, quite frankly,” he said. “Because it’s been a challenging time. And that’s not just for me, there’s been many more people, whether it’s in education or businesses.”
Though a new superintendent may be named by the fall, Reilly is fully committed to making his last year his best yet. The rocking chair will have to wait a while longer.