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Heyworth educator broadening dual credit programs is among Teacher of the Year finalists

Heyworth High School's Katie Bruemmer stands in the WGLT studios. Bruemmer is one of 13 finalists for Illinois Teacher of the Year.
Michele Steinbacher
Heyworth High School's Katie Bruemmer stands in the WGLT studios. Bruemmer is one of 13 finalists for Illinois Teacher of the Year.

A Heyworth educator who colleagues call a student favorite and a real innovator could be Illinois’ next Teacher of the Year.

Katie Bruemmer, who teaches English and is college and career readiness coordinator at Heyworth Junior/Senior High School, was named Illinois East Central Regional Teacher of the Year in February, and now is in the second round of the contest. The state will name the winner April 29.

Bruemmer calls the experience humbling, but one that makes her proud.

“To have a small school, and to offer a variety of options for our students — it's been a good opportunity,” she said.

Heyworth Junior/Senior High School Principal April Hicklin said nominating Bruemmer for the state award made sense, calling the teacher perennially popular with the students and genuinely interested in their futures.

“She wants to make sure a student really has a pathway” after high school, said Hicklin. She doesn't simply ask what they are doing after graduation. She follows up, has them reflect on it.

A Heyworth staff member since the mid 2000s, Bruemmer is credited with expanding a college-level dual credit program at the small McLean County school district, and focusing on trades opportunities.

But Bruemmer is quick to deflect attention, saying the school's success is a cooperative effort.

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) named 13 finalists for the post — with candidates hailing from across the state. Normal Community High School’s Ricky King, also was named 2023 Illinois Bilingual Teacher of the Year.

Bruemmer and King join 500 Illinois educators who the state will recognize through its “Those Who Excel” program during the April 29 event in Springfield.

Colleagues: Bruemmer innovative, student-oriented

Principal Hicklin calls Bruemmer a true innovator, noting besides the expansion of dual-credit, she’s focused on helping grads pursue non-college options, too. Besides building on the partnership Heyworth has with the Bloomington Area Career Center (BACC), this spring, Bruemmer recruited business and colleges to come to a March 27 college and job fair at the school, said Hicklin.

Bloomington Area Career Center
Bloomington Area Career Center
Bloomington Area Career Center students in the Criminal Justice and Law Enforcement program learn how to lift fingerprints.

“She doesn’t let anything hold her back, just because Heyworth isn’t a large, urban school.” Instead, she takes advantage of Heyworth’s proximity to Bloomington-Normal, said Hicklin.

Bruemmer's initiatives have played a role in the small school district joining the ranks of ISBE-rated “exemplary” high schools, said Hicklin, noting only 10% of Illinois high schools get that recognition.

Bruemmer said she's trying to think outside of the box, in terms of historical perceptions about smaller schools.

“The expectation may be that the offerings are not as abundant in a smaller school,” she said. "But it's rewarding to look at the area's options and say, ‘I think we can do that. I think we have students that could do that. And I'm willing to try it.'"

As coordinator, she’s expanded advanced placement (AP) and dual-credit offerings at the school. Heyworth's 272 high schoolers now can earn up to 48 college credits.

“I'm not doing that single-handedly, of course,” she said. “Initially, we started with just a few AP classes. Students were interested in that experience,” taking on advanced courses in history and human geography, among other topics. “And then we started to expand into the dual credit,” she said.

That’s a partnership with Heartland Community College, where students build their college transcript while still in high school. Conversely, AP courses allow students to take an exam at the end, and potentially earn credits that can be applied toward a future college experience.

Big-city to small-town teaching path

Maybe one reason Bruemmer doesn’t think inside the box about Heyworth's small school character is her varied experience as an educator.

Starting at Illinois Central College, she knew teaching was in her future. She earned a degree from University of Illinois in Champaign.

Finding inspiration in Jonathan Kozol’s seminal work “Savage Inequalities: Children in America's Schools," she immersed herself in the world of Chicago Public Schools. She’s also taught in larger districts such as Champaign and at an all-boys campus in St. Louis.

“I just wanted to teach in in that type of environment and understand the different types of school settings that there were, and see what I could do to help those students in any way.”

But the English teacher has grown to love being a small town teacher, where she's embraced the community aspect of a more compact experience.

“I can walk into the principal's office or the superintendent's office and say, ‘I'm having this challenge. What can we do?’ Or ‘I have this great idea? Do you want to get on board? How can we make this work?’... So I like that interaction with administration,” she said.

Students in Katie Bruemmer’s Introduction to Education class take turns giving group presentations about how school district finances work.
Lyndsay Jones
Students in Katie Bruemmer’s Introduction to Education class take turns giving group presentations about how school district finances work.

She also likes working in a small departments, and collaborating with her peers. And having the same students for several years and getting to know Heyworth families is a plus, she said. “Those relationships are actually really key, I think, in developing a healthy school atmosphere."

The educator also hasn’t stopped being a student: Recently, she earned a doctorate at Illinois State University — with a focus on the “untapped resource” of what mentor teachers bring to the student-teacher experience.

Teaching college-level classes to future educators

Her focus on the next generation of Illinois teachers crosses into her Heyworth role, too. She knows Illinois is focused on recruiting more teachers to address a shortage.

Bruemmer teaches the HCC dual credit course, Education 101, to Heyworth teens interested in the field.

Heyworth upperclassmen taking her HCC dual credit “Education 101” learn the basics of the history of education in America, and philosophical foundations. But Bruemmer also expands lessons beyond the textbook.

She’s brought in panels of student teachers as well as guest speakers focused on school finance. Plus, Bruemmer organizes observational lessons in different classrooms, both within and outside the Heyworth district.

“I want them to start thinking about, ‘How did the teacher create the space?’ ‘How are the students responding?’ ‘What activities are they doing?’” and what challenges do teachers face in those settings.

High schools in Unit 5, District 87, and Olympia also have some version of an Education 101-type class, said Bruemmer. And they create exchanges.

Recently, Bruemmer’s students visited Normal Community to experience a large school, while NCHS students visited Heyworth to see the smaller setting.

Creating choices for non-degree seeking students

In the short time Bruemmer’s had the career coordinator title, she’s also learned a great deal about what’s available in the McLean County area, in terms of jobs that don’t require college degrees.

That’s an area of growing interest for many people – especially as college debt gains more attention. In his recent State of the Union address, President Biden alluded to the industries needing these so-called blue collar pursuits.

Some Heyworth upperclassmen opt for attending classes at the Bloomington Area Career Center, offering nearly 20 programs.

A number of schools and local organizations are really working to build those bridges between high school students and trades and construction and other types of career paths, said Bruemmer.

“So I hope to just tap into those and help my students who are interested in those things get connected to the right people.”

Bruemmer takes students to the BACC career fair, as well as others, like the upcoming trades and construction fair in LeRoy.

Michele Steinbacher was a WGLT correspondent, joining the staff in 2020. She left the station in 2024.