New Nicolet superintendent brings broad background

Newly named superintendent Robert Kobylski in the Nicolet High School library on Apr. 26.

Newly named superintendent Robert Kobylski in the Nicolet High School library on Apr. 26. Photo By Mary Catanese

May 1, 2013

Glendale - Robert Kobylski has been a lot of things. A grocery store night manager. A pit runner at the Chicago Board of Trade. A Bears fan (let's try to forgive him). A futures trader. A teacher, and later an administrator in the Chicago Public Schools system. A school board president. An amateur woodworker and hobbyist pig farmer. A principal and superintendent of several Wisconsin school districts.

And if you live within the boundaries of the Nicolet School District, he'll be your superintendent come July.

Kobylski, a married father of six in his mid-50s, grew up in Chicago's North Shore, in Skokie, Ill. He was an academic, he says, with a focus on working with his hands - and, he adds, a bit of a jock.

"Any sport," he says. "You name it, I played it."

He describes his alma mater, Niles East High School, as similar to many North Shore Districts whose emphasis is on fine arts, high achievement and athletics.

Upon his graduation in 1977 he went straight to nearby Loyola University, where he put in for a bachelor's degree in economics while working part-time at the local grocery store. The long-term affects were twofold.

"My family laughs now, because I always insist on bagging my own groceries," says Kobylski of the grocery store, and of economics and futures trading specifically, "I fell in love with the concept, and the action associated with that."

So he became a pit runner. Those frantic looking, red-faced, winded people you see on television scurrying around the trade floor shouting out orders and brandishing tickets? That was Kobylski.

"Talk about vitality. It was an action packed day," he says.

So action packed, he recalls one trader mistakenly impaled another with a few pencils he was carrying in his shirt pocket. After witnessing the incident, Kobylski says, he made a point not to carry pencils on the trading floor.

With the financial support of his family, Kobylski eventually became an independent trader dealing in commodities futures. And while working within a Chicago firm, his career took an unexpected turn when he was teaching the tricks of the trade to interns.

"The highlight of my day wasn't trading," Kobylski recalls. "It was working with these young men and women, which was really my first foray into education."

After completing a master's program at Loyola in 18 months, Kobylski was a student teacher at an inner-city Chicago school in the spring of 1996.

"I've never regretted that," says Kobylski of starting out at an inner-city school instead of a suburban school, as others in the program were doing. "I learned that (good teaching) wasn't about the topic or coursework. It was about the student, knowing that I had to reach out and connect. Our kids walked in the door every day with something other than learning on their minds."

After seven years in that district, Kobylski moved onto a prep school on Chicago's south side. While in Chicago, he moved up the ranks into a number of administrative positions. He even had to step into a harsh limelight as a school board president, leading damage control in 2005 after the district superintendent was busted in an undercover prostitution sting.

"It taught me a lot, in terms of how to present yourself in the midst of a crisis," he recalls, "and how to provide some calmness to a community in an uproar."

In 2006 he moved to Cedarburg to take a principal job, later moving on to the Kohler district where he became superintendent, business manager, curriculum director, and principal. In 2010 he took over as superintendent of the Menasha School District, inheriting a district of declining achievement, significant achievement gaps, and a dilapidated old high school in need of repair.

"It reminded me of my start in (the Chicago Public Schools system)," he says, "of a school system that had some challenges."

While in his spare time honing his woodworking skills on a number of outbuildings around his 45-acre property in Fredonia - his "hobby farm" which included a chicken coop, pig birthing hut, and barn - Kobylski got to work turning around the Menasha District and, through a series of public input sessions, selling voters on a re-imagined high school.

In the end, Menasha district taxpayers approved the $30 million high school overhaul with a 74 percent majority.

"It's a process, not an event," says Kobylski of running a referendum. "You have to engage the community in a serious discussion in what we're trying to accomplish. Once they understand, then deciding on how to get there generally becomes easier."

The district will need that skill when it comes before voters in 2016 with an operation referendum to succeed the $2.15 million amount passed by voters in 2011. Kobylski is confident that with the community, Nicolet can build on the tradition which has garnered a reputation even in his native Chicago North Shore, where the district is commonly compared to one of Illinois' premiere schools, New Trier High School.

"This is the most excited I've been in a long time from a professional standpoint," says Kobylski, "coming to Nicolet."

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