This School District Became One of the Best Places to Work in Chicago

May 21, 2019, 11:00 AM UTC
Best Workplaces Chicago 2019-Superintendent Anthony McConnell
Anthony McConnell is Superintendent of Schools for Deerfield Public Schools District 109, which just earned a place on the list of the Best Workplaces in Chicago. Fueled by a great workplace culture, the district has high-performing schools/ Courtesy of GPTW
Courtesy of GPTW

The year 2011 wasn’t a pleasant one for labor relations at Deerfield Public Schools District 109.

The K-8 public school district in the Chicago suburb of Deerfield, Illinois, experienced cantankerous contract talks. Teachers went seven months without a contract, and nearly walked out of their classrooms in frustration.

“In my opinion, we were on the verge of a strike,” recalls Dale Fisher, assistant superintendent for human resources at the district. “We never wanted to repeat that. And we haven’t.”

A big reason that Fisher, other administrators and teachers have enjoyed labor peace since 2011 is that the district began quantifying their workplace culture.

By surveying teachers and other staffers on a regular basis, and making changes in response to the findings, the district now gets high marks on its workplace environment. In fact, it earned a place on the 2019 list of the Best Workplaces in Chicago, which was compiled by workplace research and data analytics firm Great Place to Work in partnership with Fortune.

The list is based on a rigorous assessment of the experience of employees in the metropolitan Chicago region. Nearly 19,000 workers in the Chicago metro area responded to more than 60 survey questions describing the extent to which their organization creates a Great Place to Work For All.

Eighty-five percent of the evaluation is based on what employees say about their experiences of trust and reaching their full human potential, no matter who they are or what they do for the organization. Great Place to Work analyzes these experiences relative to each organization’s size, across their workforce, and what’s typical in each industry and throughout Chicago. The remaining 15 percent of the rank is based on an assessment of all employees’ daily experiences of innovation, the company’s values, and the effectiveness of their leaders.

The Best Workplaces in Chicago list has two rankings. In the large organization division, software company Workday is No. 1, followed by Salesforce, Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants, Marriott International, and Power Home Remodeling. Large firms on the list include biopharmaceutical company AbbVie, Hyatt Hotels, and the accounting firms Crowe LLP and Baker Tilly Virchow Krause LLP.

Among small and medium best workplaces in Chicago, consulting firm West Monroe Partners ranks No. 1, followed by IT advisory firm Burwood Group, and employee health and benefits company Maestro Health.

Deerfield Public Schools District 109 (at No. 20 on the small and medium list) stands out for being an organization in the education arena with a stellar workplace culture. Indeed, labor strife in school districts has made headlines in recent years in places including West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, Los Angeles, Denver and Oakland.

At Deerfield’s District 109, 93 percent of employees call the organization a great place to work. Even more, 95 percent, say they feel they make a difference at work, while 97 percent say “people care about each other here” and 96 percent say they’re proud to tell others they work there.

The positive ratings have to do with what’s become a culture of feedback. Fisher says that district leaders are constantly learning new things about what teachers want or need. One recent pain point was tech support, leading administrators to speed up their helpdesk response times. Another finding was that teachers wanted to understand the long-term financial impact of their decisions to buy this or that curriculum product. Administrators hadn’t expected classroom teachers to take such a keen interest in the budgetary big picture.

“It always surprises us,” Fisher says. “They needed to be in the know.”

The habit of polling employees gradually extended to cover a wider set of stakeholders, says Superintendent Anthony McConnell. The district now surveys students and parents on a regular basis. Among the questions asked of students is whether the principal knows them by name.

When McConnell was a principal in the district some time ago, survey results showed that nearly all of his students felt he knew their name. “I remember going home and wracking my brain about this—who are those two kids who think I don’t know their name?’” he says.

In the wake of that information, McConnell began writing hand-written notes to all his students and being more conscious of using student names.

That personal touch, along with happy teachers, reinforces strong results in the district. Since 2015, five of its six elementary and middle schools have been named National Blue Ribbon Schools, a recognition available only to schools in the top 15 percent of academic performance statewide. The designation also rewards excellence when it comes to school culture, climate, community engagement, professional learning and leadership.

As superintendent, McConnell sees his role as creating a culture where staff members feel listened to, proud, prepared and empowered to do the right thing for students and their learning.

“I can’t directly control how a teacher acts if a student starts crying in their classroom,” he says. “But I can create systems to make sure we have the right people with the right dispositions in that classroom, and make sure that we create a school environment that is conducive to empathy. We spend a lot of time getting our people focused around the right way to make decisions, and then allowing them to make the decisions.”

Ed Frauenheim is senior director of content at Great Place to Work and co-author of the book A Great Place to Work For All.