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Thursday, Jan. 23, 2014 12:01 am

Meet Jennifer Gill

New superintendent knows the school district and the issues

Jennifer Gill, who was voted in as superintendent of Springfield Public Schools this week, was educated in the same schools she’ll be overseeing in her new post.
PHOTO BY PATRICK YEAGLE

 

For Jennifer Gill, this is a sort of homecoming.

Gill was born and raised in Springfield, was educated in Springfield’s public schools and went on to teach in them. Soon, she will move into a new office a stone’s throw from the middle school classrooms she occupied as a child.

The Springfield Public Schools board of education voted Gill in as the new superintendent this week, marking her return to a district she knows well. She’ll face several district-wide problems, however, including how to balance a budget that has endured deep cuts for years.

Gill comes from a family of educators, which helped influence her to become one herself. Her grandmother taught in a one-room schoolhouse in rural McLean County. Her mother worked as an orchestra teacher in Springfield Public Schools, and her father taught reading and English in the Tri-City School District in Buffalo, east of Springfield.

As a child, Gill attended Dubois Elementary School and Grant Middle School. Gill’s first experience with teaching came during her years at Grant, when she was part of a program in which she tutored elementary school students.

“It just kind of piqued my interest,” she said.

After graduating from Springfield High School, Gill earned her bachelor’s degree in education from Eastern Illinois University, then taught fifth grade for three years at Jacksonville’s Washington Elementary School. She then taught third grade at Wanless Elementary School in Springfield for two years, before starting her master’s degree in educational administration at the University of Illinois Springfield. She finished that degree and returned to the district as an administrative intern for three years at Franklin Middle School in Springfield, where she served five years. That’s where she got her first taste of being an administrator.

“It was a unique position because you’re still within the teaching workforce, but you are really assigned to help with student scheduling, student counseling, student needs, discipline and all those things,” she said. “I really enjoyed it.”

After finishing as an administrative intern, Gill became a part-time principal’s assistant and assessment coordinator at Dubois Elementary School. She served in that role for two years before becoming a full-time principal’s assistant at Harvard Park Elementary School for a year.

In 2002, Gill took over as principal at Vachel Lindsay Elementary School.

“It was a big school, and it was a newer school out west, so it brought a lot of new challenges for me,” she said.

After five years at Vachel Lindsay, Gill moved to the district’s central office to help develop curricula and assessments. She did that job for one year, until the district needed a principal at McClernand Elementary. Gill took over at McClernand in 2008 and served there until 2012.

“It was the best experience ever,” she said “There’s an amazing teaching staff there who work hard to develop relationships with the kids. It’s a really important school in that community. Those are years that I’ll always treasure.”

Before applying for the job of superintendent, Gill spent a year working as the director of teaching and learning at McLean County Unit District 5. She says her extensive resume has prepared her for this new post.

“All the experiences that I’ve been afforded have led me to where I am today, and I’ve had a lot of great experiences,” she said. “I feel like it’s a well-rounded career that feels like it happened in a minute. I feel like I could drive to any of those places right now and go, ‘What? I was only gone for a few days.’ ”

Gill will start her new job just in time to join the school board’s budget discussions for the coming fiscal year. The district has had to cut millions of dollars from the budget each of the past four years due to decreased state funding and stagnant investments, and although the board hopes this will be the final year of large cuts, the board will have to close a projected $5 million gap to balance the budget for the coming fiscal year which starts in July.

That doesn’t frighten Gill, however. She’s used to numbers and tight budgets, and she’s ready to help the board sift through the district’s expenses and make tough cuts. And while the board begins debating whether to ask voters to approve an increase in funding, either through a property tax or sales tax increase, Gill says she will be working to help the public understand what the district offers students and the community.

“I don’t enter into this position with fear,” she said. “I’ve got a notion of what’s possible for our community, and I have a lot of hope for what’s to come. I know that I’ve got a lot of great building blocks. I know some people see this as a scary notion, but to me, it’s exciting.”

Gill says people began offering their support even before she became superintendent.

“Every single day, wherever I am, people come up to me and say, ‘How can I help? I want to be on board.’ Whether it’s the political side of our town or agencies or people who are retired, I’ve just felt this outpouring of support because they also feel that mission.”

Though Gill will face problems like underfunding, implementing a new statewide curriculum and a lack of minority teachers, she says all of that is worth the work when she sees the fruits of her labor in a child’s success.

“Those are the moments where you just know that educators in this community are making a difference each and every day in the lives of students,” she said. “When you see that smile on a child and the growth they’re achieving with their schoolwork, those are the moments that make this job worthwhile.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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