By: ALEX POLETTI
More than a month before the first pealings of the bell marked the official start of another school year, new CUSD superintendent, Dr. Barbara Dill-Varga, was already hard at work. Bringing in over a decade of experience in public education, she aims to honor and build upon Carmel’s tradition of excellence.
Dill-Varga comes to the Monterey area after an eight-year tenure as the assistant superintendent for instruction and curriculum of the Maine Township High School District in Park Ridge, Illinois, a school district named by “Tech Insider” as one of the 14 most innovative in the country.
The Illinois native comes from more humble beginnings; the daughter of a Greek immigrant, Dill-Varga grew up around teachers and librarians. She notes these professionals proved to be some of the most influential in her mother’s life, and by proxy, hers as well.
“Certain female adult role models she had were teachers and librarians, and they gave her a safe haven and gave her a vision of what she could be,” the superintendent says of her mother. “She passed that onto me.”
Somewhat ironically, given her grandparents could not speak the language, Dill-Varga first started in education as an English teacher. After spending a few years as a teacher, the Northwestern graduate served as the English department chair for Glenbard District 87, the third-largest school district in the state of Illinois.
Her love for English extends beyond the classroom; in her free time—wherever she can find it, the superintendent jokes—she works on a novel she began two years ago.
“I have a draft of a James Patterson-like thriller,” the part-time author says. “It’s very rough and needs work. I hope to get back to it some day!”
A keen observer may find scattered traces of the United Kingdom throughout the former English teacher’s office, most notably the “Keep Calm and Carry On” mug from which she drinks her daily joe.
Indeed, Dill-Varga does have a connection with the country across the pond; perhaps one of the informative experiences in her life was a year-long exchange program in Cardiff where she taught English to Welsh high school students. Her sojourn in the United Kingdom gave her a new perspective on life and helped improve her educational skills.
“I had to become more of an extrovert, so I really grew up that year as a person,” the superintendent says.
Furthermore, Dill-Varga received the opportunity to view America from the outside, most notably the presidential election being held in the year of her exchange program.
What is clear from the outset of a conversation with Dill-Varga is her interest in the students of the district; she engages with students, asking them about their experience in school. Although she may be a newcomer, she knows of Carmel’s students and history, mentioning off-hand accomplishments of students from the past several years, despite never knowing or teaching them.
For those who know her, this is no surprise; the incoming superintendent is known for her people skills and great passion for learning.
“She is really good with people, cares deeply about others and is a smart decision maker with great judgment and common sense,” Maine Township superintendent Dr. Ken Wallace says of his former co-worker. “She is genuinely kind and compassionate. She will be a good listener and learner, and if you are lucky enough, a good friend.”
At her previous district, Barbara Dill-Varga helped pioneer the Global Action Inquiry Network Academy, a product of her collaboration with XQ America, a project headed by Laurene Powell Jobs, wife of late Apple founder Steve Jobs. The GAIN program intends to gear students towards their passions while also driving them to affect the world in a positive way, citing the United Nations’ list of world problems as potential areas of student interest.
“We want students to have a purpose and drive to improve some aspect of the world,” Dill-Varga says. “It’s not just about getting into the top college or making six figures, but a nobler goal.”
Moreover, she advocates for a more metacognitive approach to student learning, where students ask themselves, “Why am I here?” and “What purpose is my life going to serve?” before choosing the educational path on which they wish to embark. Coupled with this innovative thinking are the aspirations to expand upon the role technology plays in education. Dill-Varga intends to use technology as a means of student agency.
“It isn’t about getting more stuff. It’s not about the boxes and the wires,” explains Dill-Varga, stressing instead the ways in which the usage of technology can help students change the world.
These theories of work proved successful during her tenure at Maine Township, Wallace notes.
“[Barbara] helped us implement professional development strands like our action research project and instructional coaching model that is one of the best in the nation,” the Maine Township superintendent says.
Her aforementioned instructional coaching model is of great importance to Dill-Varga, emphasizing the importance of building on the knowledge that teachers already have.
Dill-Varga described the coaching model as “helping teachers become studiers of their own practice.”
Using her experience and drive, Dill-Varga hopes to build on the success of the Carmel Unified School District, and it is not likely she’ll be stopping anytime soon.
“She is not someone who will rest with the status quo,” Wallace says of his former co-worker. “Dr. Barb Dill-Varga believes in and breathes to be better, and no matter how good Carmel is, and I know it’s great, she will help find an even better version.”