New Principal Embraces Culver ‘Family’
“I find myself using certain words all the time, because I’ve come to associate them with Culver School. The words are warm, welcoming and family.”
That’s Dr. Erica Smolinski describing her early days as the new Culver principal. She started in the position in July 2018, taking over from retiring principal Peggie Maniscalco.
Dr. Smolinski continued, “While I was going through the interview process, I heard a parent say, ‘We are so happy with Culver. This school feels like a family. We are proud our children attend Culver.’ A teacher told me, ‘The staff is like a family; we support each other. We care about each other. It’s a truly special place to teach.’ And a student said, ‘Our teachers really care about us here. It’s great to see some of our teachers for so many years in a row.’ ”
Dr. Smolinski describes herself as a “music person” who enjoys music outside of school and encourages teachers to use it in the classroom. Before the new school year got under way, she asked teachers to name three songs that they associate with Culver. While there was quite a bit of variation in numbers 2 and 3, the overwhelming number 1 choice was “We Are Family.” For those who are not familiar with that 1979 song by Sister Sledge, it includes the lyrics, “High hopes we have for the future, and our goal’s in sight.”
“Fully 80 percent of teachers said the Culver community feels like family,” Dr. Smolinski said.
Dr. Smolinski comes to Culver from a large district with more than 30 schools, so transferring to a one-school district like District 71 inevitably involves some changes. However, she said, “Having attended a pre-K through 8 building myself as a student, it is easy to recognize the wonderful community and culture enhanced by this type of school model. And the start of the school year has gone very smoothly.”
Much of her time has spent learning people’s names — staff, students and parents. “And beyond just the names, I want to know what’s your style? What do you want from Culver School? Where do you want to go in life and in your career?”
Dr. Smolinski does not come to her position at Culver as a novice. After starting her career as a classroom teacher more than 20 years ago, she was an assistant principal in Indian Prairie District 204 for the last 10 years. She noted, “In my mind, building leaders have to be servant-leaders. We’re good at problem-solving, and I try to put that ability at the service of the entire school. I go about it enthusiastically, and I hope that’s contagious.”
She spends as much time in the classroom as she can, typically visiting four or five classrooms every day. “For the most part, I’m just there to observe, and often the students and even the teacher may not be acutely aware of my presence.” If she has an idea or suggestion that she wants to share with the teacher, she will follow up afterwards with an email or a conversation.
“My priorities will always start with the strategic plan,” Dr. Smolinski said. “And if you boil it down, the strategic plan comes down to what we can do to make sure our students are actively engaged with their education. It all springs from that.”
She added, “Through my years in education, I have valued the importance of being both fun-loving and hard-working during the important work we do with young people. I sense the District 71 culture values this combination, and I look forward to continuing to cultivate Culver Pride through my work with this school community.”