Ondek says goodbye as Quaker Valley superintendent
Working in the Quaker Valley School District for the last 14 years has been nothing but a pure joy for Heidi Ondek.
She lived for the moments when she received a handwritten “thank you” note from a parent or heard from a student who once struggled telling her that they found success.
With a background in special education, Ondek said she always strived to help students who were struggling and create a path for success. It was often an idea she had and her team, or even a student, brought it to fruition.
“Seeing children blossom and grow in ways because I know a teacher made an exception, a principal removed a barrier, somebody removed an obstacle and made a path for a student to find success, that’s what we live for,” she said. “That’s the joy of seeing kids find success.”
As she leaves her post as superintendent of the district this week — a little earlier than she had planned, Ondek, of Sewickley, said she doesn’t plan to go far. She still will be around as a mom, an advocate and there for anything the community needs — just in a different role.
“I’m not going anywhere,” she said. “I’m changing jobs, but I’m not leaving this great community.”
Ondek will work her last day in Quaker Valley on June 29. On Monday, she will assume the role of executive director/superintendent at the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children.
Board members and the Friends of the Sewickley Public Library held a get together in her honor last week.
Quaker Valley leaders on May 31 hired longtime North Allegheny administrator Tammy Andreyko to serve as the district’s next superintendent, with an Aug. 6 start date.
Ondek, who started her career in education as a special education teacher in El Paso, Texas, joined the Quaker Valley School District 14 years ago as a high school principal.
While working as an elementary principal in the Northgate School District, Ondek was invited to apply for the job as the Edgeworth Elementary School principal. She wasn’t interested in another elementary principal job, but she was interested in the high school principal opening.
She told that to then Superintendent Jerry Longo and was hired for the job on Jan. 27, 2003, her due date for her youngest son, Eddie.
Fast forward to May 4, 2004, and 12 weeks with her newborn, and she started the job as high school principal in Quaker Valley, which she called “the best career move of my life.”
She excelled from high school principal to assistant superintendent and on July 1, 2014, was named superintendent of Quaker Valley School District.
At Quaker Valley, Ondek was a “leader among leaders,” said Jeffrey Sebastian, high school math teacher and president of the Quaker Valley Education Association, who serves as chief negotiator for the union.
“There’s something about Heidi that I always admired,” he said. Together, they agreed to always put kids first.
“Whenever we couldn’t agree on something, we always did what was best for the kids,” he said, adding, “Even our disagreements were pleasant.”
Ondek stood out for her “character and integrity” which are “beyond reproach,” he said.
Ondek said she’s loved every job she’s ever had. But there was something special about Quaker Valley.
So special, that she moved her family to Sewickley.
“The culture here is one that is completely child-centered. Everything we do… it’s real,” she said.
After working in Quaker Valley, she couldn’t send her son to any other school district and, what greater compliment could she give the staff then to entrust them with her own child?
“Living here and serving the district in that capacity was a dream come true,” she said.
Ondek planned to retire in the district.
Yet, at a time when she said she realized her family needed more of her, she was approached about a search for the job at the Western Pennsylvania School for Blind Children.
She has a granddaughter that goes there, too.
“I was intrigued by the opportunity and began to reevaluate my priorities and my life and I think we all need to recognize when those moments present themselves,” she said. “I resisted it because of my love for this community and the position. It came sooner than I wanted.”
Yet Ondek is excited to return full circle to work again in special education.
She plans to further partnerships with Pittsburgh institutions and capitalize on the use of technology to support the needs of children with disabilities.
Quaker Valley is in good hands with Andreyko at the helm, Ondek said. While she wasn’t a part of the search, she did weigh-in on the attributes that were important for the superintendent.
“She possesses them,” Ondek said of Andreyko.
Ondek plans to stay involved in the Quaker Valley community.
She’s joining the Friends of Quaker Valley Schools education foundation as a trustee. And, she’s been approached by others about opportunities to serve. But, she’s being selective to ensure she has the time.
As Quaker Valley embarks on a project to build a new high school, Ondek is rallying behind it.
“I believe in this high school project,” she said. “I want to be involved in the community engagement work and the need surrounding that facility. I believe strongly in that and will support the community, the board, administration as well as the new superintendent in those efforts in whatever way I can.”
Being a mom in the district, she’ll still be around.
Looking back on the last 14 years, there’s so much that stands out.
“From a dedicated school board to a community that holds high expectations of us and a school system that just keeps surpassing the prior years achievements. Every year, we say, ‘This was the best year ever’ and it happens again, over and over and over again,” she said.
“People think superintendents are managing budgets and boards like a business,” Ondek said. “That’s a reality, those pieces are there. But we’re all child advocates. That’s what drives us. I feel blessed to have had this ride here.”
Stephanie Hacke is a Tribune-Review contributing writer.