Jane L. Beyer Westerhold knows no boundaries. As superintendent of the Des Plaines (Ill.) Community Consolidated School District 62 in suburban Chicago, Westerhold has led a three-year master plan with a $109 million facilities upgrade, narrowed the achievement gap between low-income and other students, and kept a AA+ bond rating—the highest given by the Illinois State Board of Education.
She managed this despite a recession and a diverse student body, which speaks 61 languages. In recognition, Westerhold was named the 2013 Illinois Superintendent of the Year by the Illinois Association of School Administrators (IASA).
The announcement prompted the Des Plaines Chamber of Commerce to trumpet her award on an electronic billboard on Interstate Highway 90. “I was dying,” Westerhold says with a laugh. “I was like, ‘You’ve got to be kidding me. I am going to get so much abuse for this.’ ” She is also quick to add that most of her colleagues across Illinois are equally qualified for the honor.
She Earned It
But those who work with Westerhold, a 33-year veteran in K12 administration, agree she deserves the recognition. Nelson Gray, assistant superintendent and business manager at Des Plaines, says she brought together a “solid leadership group” that works across silos to achieve the mission of the K8 district, which has 5,000 students. “If we were to function as independent departments, the synergy wouldn’t be there to move things forward the way the district has been able to do,” Gray says.
Brenda Murphy, school board president, says the superintendent has “very high expectations” for herself and those around her and works tirelessly to see all students succeed. “Obviously, it takes a whole team of people to make a school district successful,” Murphy says, and “one of her strengths is her ability to recruit and develop talent.”
Westerhold also empowers teachers in a collaborative fashion, says Kathy Borg, president of the Des Plaines Education Association, the teachers’ union. “She really does promote that professional learning community concept,” says Borg. “You can see her level of investment in the way the other administrators work to involve and engage teachers and parents.”
A Principal at 26
A native of Staunton, Ill., Westerhold says her home town focused heavily on its schools, where she was a member of the local high school marching band. After receiving her master’s degree in education from Southern Illinois University-Edwardsville, Westerhold became principal at age 26 at a school in the Worden (Ill.) School District 16, a small district that’s since been absorbed into Edwardsville School District 7.
In the years since, Westerhold has earned her doctorate in leadership and policy studies at Loyola University in Chicago while serving stints as assistant principal and principal in Edwardsville, principal and director of special projects in Schaumburg School District 54, director of curriculum and instruction in Wauconda Community Unit School District 118, and assistant superintendent in Valley View Community School District 365U that opened several new buildings. “My experience in working with the construction was an asset” after arriving at Des Plaines in 2005, says Westerhold, whose husband is a retired superintendent who has continued to work as an interim superintendent in three districts.
Building in an Economic Bust
Since arriving in Des Plaines, Westerhold is most proud of the master plan, an “elaborate ambitious goal” that was accomplished in three years, from 2010 to 2012. Westerhold invited more than 500 citizensto provide input as the master plan took shape about “what they wanted the district to be,” she says. “We tried to touch on every group willing to participate. That’s critical to undertaking such a project.”
It was a significant undertaking to meet the needs, to fund it, and to physically get the work done in three years, Gray adds. “That all took place at the same time as trying to move other things forward with instruction, with technology,” he says.
The plan, which incorporated 625,700 square feet of renovations and 109,200 square feet of new construction, included a new early learning center that brought together preschool children who had been scattered in classrooms in other schools. It provides a focused setting while opening space in other schools to create TILE (Technology Integrated Learning Environments) rooms in every building. TILE rooms are computer labs each equipped with 60 laptops, two smart boards and document cameras, Westerhold says.
Also as part of the master plan, decades-old buildings had significant upgrades, including HVAC, lights, floors, and painting. New, larger kitchens and cafeterias at Algonquin and Chippewa middle schools enable all students in each grade to eat together, where lunch periods had been staggered in the past due to insuffcient seating.
The year-round K8 Iroquois School, located in the flight path to O’Hare International Airport, had originally been built without windows to keep air traffic noise down, but now has natural light from nearly soundproof windows, which Westerhold feels improves the learning environment. South School, about 75 years old and built with fireplaces inside two rooms that are now TILE rooms, was restored to its “historical” look, she says.
Perhaps most presciently, the project added two sets of doors each with a security buzzer at the entrance and exit of a vestibule. “Everybody’s scrambling to add security after the Sandy Hook (school shootings), but we already have it,” she says. “That was comforting to our families after that horrible tragedy.”
ELL Training for All
Westerhold’s embrace of diversity and the challenges posed by the achievement gap have brought academic success. The achievement gap narrowed between lowincome students and others from 28 percent in 2005 to 14 percent today on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test, even as the percentage of low-income students rose from 28 percent to 45 percent in the same period. She attributes the reduction to leadership and “great teachers.”
With a student body that is 40 percent Hispanic, and where 61 languages are spoken, Westerhold and her team combined general education and English language learners into one educational track where they had been separate in the past. All incoming teachers and existing staff are encouraged to gain ELL certification, which the district pays about $50,000 per year to do so, Westerhold says. To date, 35 percent of the district’s teachers have this certification.
Along with ELL, teachers undertake diversity training through learning modules that help them becomemore informed about the cultural needs of children—and staff. For example, teachers learned that hugging or putting their arm around the shoulder of a child is perceived negatively by Muslims. “They learn how to meet the needs for different languages, but also other needs,” Westerhold says.
A Visionary for Teacher PD
To recruit an excellent team and help people succeed is another goal that sets Westerhold apart. In 2006, she incorporated the Charlotte Danielson framework for professional development, a research-based program that in part provides a common vocabulary and helps teachers understand expectations. The rigorous online training includes videos of both effective and ineffective teachers that viewers can review.
A committee that included stakeholders from administrators to union leaders devised the district’s new teacher evaluation system based on the model, and an ongoing evaluation committee reviews the rubric to find areas of improvement. In 2012, Danielson became the model for teacher evaluations in Illinois, Westerhold says. “I feel so fortunate we were visionary to have that in place,” she adds.
She also developed a professional learning community network, which gives teachers a chance to look at the data andhave a dialogue around best practices. And since strong leadership is also important, Westerhold and her team have also instituted a new principal mentorship program in which she and the three assistant superintendents perform an annual management review. In some cases, they bring in an outside mentor to review each principal’s goals, with the hope that principals will feel more comfortable about revealing how they’re trying to improve, she says.
On the finance side, District 62 has improved its bond rating with Standard & Poor’s, as well as gained recognition for financial stability from the Illinois State Board of Education, with “solid fund balances” and conservative spending habits, Westerhold says.
Associate Superintendent Paul Hertel meets with each principal to discuss staffng needs in areas like special education, ELL, and even custodial, to evaluate needs and return-on-investment. When a program isn’t making gains, it’s discontinued, or when a special ed student leaves a district, for example, the aide for that student may or may not be re-assigned depending on need.
The union is on board, Borg says. And relations with the teachers’ union has been positive, even during collectivebargaining. There have been no layoffs during Westerhold’s tenure, but the union accepted a 0 percent cost-ofliving increase for four years along with a “healthy step increase,” Borg says. “If the district is struggling financially, nobody wins,” she adds.“We also recognize that negative relationships between the teachers and the board and administration have a negative impact on kids.”
And Westerhold’s personal touch wins people over, Murphy says. “She writes a lot of thank-you notes,” she says. “From her elementary school teaching days, she has lovely handwriting, so it’s a very nice touch that she takes time to attend to those details.”
Ed Finkel is a contributing writer to District Administration.