On the record ... with Sarah Willey
KIRKLAND – Dr. Sarah Willey is the new superintendent for Hiawatha CUSD 426. She was chosen from a list of 30 candidates and assumed her new duties on July 1.
Originally from Harmon, Ill., Willey moved to Sterling when she was 11. She said reading and social studies were her favorite subjects growing up.
After graduating from Newman Central Catholic High School, Willey earned her bachelor’s degree in special education from Bradley University before getting her masters, E.D.S. and doctorate at Western Illinois University.
Willey taught in Bellevue, near Peoria, for one year, then taught for nine years in the Sterling-Rock Falls-Dixon area. She then spent 11 years as an administrator, served as the director of the Lee County Special Education Association and was director of instruction in Rochelle before being recruited to work in the Lee-Ogle regional office.
Willey comes to Hiawatha from the Riverdale School District in Rock Falls, a 63-student district which was absorbed by the Rock Falls Elementary School District 13 this year.
Willey talked about her career and education with MidWeek reporter Doug Oleson.
MidWeek: Did someone inspire you to be a teacher?
Sarah Willey: No, it was sort of accidental. I was really interested in psychology. But you couldn’t get a job with a bachelor’s degree in psychology, so this is about as close as I could get.
MW: Why did you go into administration?
SW: I felt frustrated that I only had a small zone of influence in my classroom. I felt I had more to offer than that.
MW: How did you come to Hiawatha?
SW: I was superintendent at Riverdale, which is a really small district about a mile and half outside of Rock Falls. We couldn’t maintain the district, so in the last two years I worked myself out of a job, which is why I was looking. This seemed like a good fit. It’s a small, rural kind of community that’s comfortable for me. And so far, it has been. I’ve enjoyed it here. Everyone has been very welcoming.
MW: With about 600 students, this has to be a big increase from what you’re used to.
SW: Yes. Riverdale had 63 students, K-8. That’s why we had to close. It was sad because the district had been in existence for 135 years.
MW: Did that bring some interesting challenges, having so few kids?
SW: It did. When you have four children in a grade, it’s hard to form social groups that are healthy. The other thing is, it’s very difficult to maintain separate classrooms. We were in dual classrooms. Except for kindergarten, everything was combined. And, financially, if we had stayed open, we were looking at three grades per classroom. That’s really hard to teach. ...The kids don’t get the departmentalization and the special fields like science or social studies. They did fairly well. We were moving towards a one-room school, and financially, you can’t keep a district open like that.
MW: Do you have any goals for the Hiawatha district?
SW: The board really has to work with me on goals. You don’t work in isolation. You work as a team with the board. And really the board represents the community and it’s the community’s goals that you’re trying to further.
But obviously you look at academics and environment, safety and orderliness. You look at the curriculum, the collegiality of the staff, all those are areas in which effective schools function well.
SW: It’s bonding, camaraderie, the way they work well together. Are they treating each other and the students professionally? Do they operate with the best interest of the students? All those are all characteristics of highly effective schools.
MW: Does the superintendent set policy, or does the school board?
SW: The board’s role is to set policy and the superintendent’s role is to implement that policy and manage the district. The board is ultimately responsible, but they turn over that authority to the superintendent.
MW: What are some of the duties of the superintendent?
SW: Managing the finances is the biggest one. Guiding and leading the curriculum is another. Leading the district towards its best performance, especially in the academic area, making sure we make adequate progress, which is a state measure, and just kind of focusing everybody, leading them toward the common goal.
MW: How much leeway do the teachers have in what they teach?
SW: Not a lot. The board is responsible for setting the curriculum, which is what we teach. The teachers have some leeway in how they teach, so it’s more of a technique area. The board approves the materials that you use.
The unique thing that we have in Illinois though, which is going to become more and more important, is we have Illinois Learning Standards. So for the most part, we almost have a statewide curriculum because we’re responsible for meeting them. They pretty much set what we need to teach, then we have some leeway on how we do it. Now, we are moving in Illinois to what we call a common course standard. I don’t remember how many states are going to use this; I think it’s 37. But those states have gotten together and worked on the standards over time to establish this common core knowledge that every student should know in public school.
Right now, I think we have the reading and math standards established, and I think they’re working on science or social studies next.
MW: I always assumed the government just dictated all of that. Otherwise, you could get into college and have a wide discrepancy of knowledge between students.
SW: That is exactly what used to happen. That was part of the problem. That’s why there’s a movement to establish a common course standard the colleges can count on.
MW: That is a good thing, isn’t it?
SW: It is, but it interferes with the idea of local control somewhat. Some people don’t like that. States have always had the right to educate. That’s always been the rub between the U.S. Department of Education and state’s rights. And that’s where the conflict comes in politically. That’s what you hear on the news. That’s why it’s such a hot issue.
MW: Is that what school boards mean when they complain the state mandates certain things, but doesn’t fund them?
SW: Yes. Special education is probably the best example. That was passed in 1973 or ‘74 with mandates of what you had to do for students with disabilities, which was fine, but they said they would fund it at 40 percent. The highest we’ve ever gotten is 18 percent. So they’ve put the burden on us, but they haven’t supported it financially. And that’s frustrating because it takes money out of the local system. Transportation is another area. They pass a mandate to transport, but they don’t pay for it. So the local property taxes take the pressure.
MW: But when the school board runs into a deficit budget, you look like the bad guys.
SW: Right. And it’s gotten worse and worse all the time.
MW: So is the budget your biggest challenge?
SW: I think it is, yes. Especially in this day and age, because the state is broke. A lot of their funding is six months behind. So what they’re doing, they’re writing the checks and then they’re sitting until there’s money to pay the check.
MW: Do you provide the budget and the board has to approve it?
SW: Yes, we’re doing that right now. They have to approve it by the end of September. It has to be filed with the county clerk by Sept. 30.
MW: Are there any other challenges facing schools or teachers?
SW: Everything is being pushed down. What used to be expected in kindergarten is expected to be done before kindergarten. And the same thing is true as you go up with each grade. So it’s going to be an adjustment. Preschool is way more common than it used to be.
MW: Is it going to get to the point where preschool is required?
SW: Just about. It almost is now.
MW: When I was growing up, I don’t think kindergarten was required. They wanted you to go, but you didn’t have to.
SW: It still isn’t. You’re legally requited to attend school between 7 and 17. Some children aren’t in school until they’re 7, but boy, are they behind. It’s hard to put a 7-year-old in with 5-year-olds, so they really have to move them up.
MW: That has to be hard on the teacher.
SW: Yes, it is. I’ve only had that happen once. And it took her a good two years to catch up at all.
MW: Any final thoughts about coming here?
SW: It’s been interesting and fun so far.