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Drinking from the ‘WELL’: Twin Cities summit spotlights Illinois women in educational leadership

Four women in business attire smile at the camera. They stand in front of large letters spelling "Well"
Lauren Warnecke
From left, Jalitza Martinez, Erica Berger, panel moderator Bhavna Sharma-Lewis, Janice Pavelonis and Teresa Lance. As part of a panel discussion, each woman addressed their biggest hurdles working as principals and superintendents in Illinois schools.

As superintendent of schools in the Greater St. Louis village of Smithton, Susan Homes felt isolated.

“What I always noticed about my career is that I was really a fish out of water,” she said in an interview with WGLT.

Prior to becoming a superintendent, Homes was tech director in her district, bringing schools into the internet age in the 1990s.

“The first few meetings I attended as both an assistant superintendent and then later as a superintendent were very much male-dominated,” she said. “It was a ‘good old boys’ club, people that knew each other. In fact, one person even said to me, ‘Once you’re in the club, you’re in the club.’”

It was at one of these meetings that Homes met Lori Hopkins, then-superintendent of schools in the St. Louis Metro East city of Jerseyville. It was here that the seeds of the WELL Summit were first planted.

“She and I had walked through our superintendency at the exact same time,” Homes said. “We met and we clicked, and we really helped each other through that experience.”

Homes is now based in Springfield, where she is deputy executive director for professional learning at the Illinois Principals Association. With support from the IPA and 30 additional sponsors and partners, Homes, Hopkins and Illinois State Board of Education deputy state superintendent Susie Morrison launched the WELL Summit in 2019 as a way to support other women in the education sector.

Short for Women in Education Leading and Learning, WELL held its fifth annual day-long gathering March 10 at the Marriott Conference Center in Uptown Normal.

By the numbers

A key aspect of the initiative is to forge solidarity and support for women in the top jobs at schools and districts around the state. As recently as 2015, an Illinois State Board of Education report found that just 28% of Illinois superintendents were women, despite women forming more than three-quarters of all Illinois teachers.

It is changing. The 2022 Illinois Report Card indicates that 59% of school administrators are women. The stat has barely moved, however, in the top job, with women comprising just 29% of all Illinois superintendents.

The half-day conference included panel discussions, breakout groups and a set of “Tammy Talks” – WELL’s femininized version of TED Talks. A performance from Normal Community High School’s girls’ a cappella group called Key of She kicked off the day, followed by opening remarks from ESPN sideline reporter Lauren Sisler.

“This was not a hard one to say yes to,” Sisler said of accepting the speaking engagement.

Sound Ideas interview: Lauren Sisler
WGLT's interview with ESPN sideline reporter Lauren Sisler.

Sisler shared a personal story about her childhood growing up in gymnastics. As a college freshman at Rutgers University, both her parents died of opioid overdoses within hours of each other.

Sisler says she can relate to the conference’s mission as a woman in a male-dominated field. She sees it as a way to “give back to women.”

“… Especially women that are educating and are leaders in our school systems and our communities,” she said. “To me, it’s a role that does not get the credit it deserves.”

Wearing multiple hats

A cross-state panel of school administrators addressed questions about the challenges and fears female leaders face. A recurring theme was how to balance the multiple hats women wear.

“I am a daughter, I’m a wife, I’m a mother, I’m a friend and I’m a superintendent,” said Janice Pavelonis, superintendent of schools for District 95 in Carbondale. Pavelonis oversees over 1,500 students, more than half of which are below the poverty line. She spoke as part of a four-person panel following Sisler’s keynote.

“The biggest obstacle facing women is trying to balance all of these parts of who we are and control our own narrative around what we’re saying to ourselves about mom guilt, wife guilt, daughter guilt,” she said.

“Somewhere in there you’re also making sure kids know how to read,” said Erica Berger, a principal in the Diamond Lake school district located approximately 40 miles north of Chicago. “That’s kind of important. You’re making sure staff are fully working to their potential. The expectations for female leaders are so much greater.”

The statistics surrounding women in school leadership are even less encouraging for women of color.

“We can get offered a seat at the table, but just being at the table is not enough,” said Teresa Lance, assistant superintendent of equity and innovation in Elgin, the second largest school district in Illinois.

“They say we want you, Teresa, to lead as superintendent and these are the things we want you to work on. Here are the things we want you to change,” she said. “But the reality is, they really want a Black woman to do the work.”

Of all school administrators, the 2022 Illinois Report Card says just 14.3% are Black. More than two-thirds of those are women.

“Being able to lead authentically, being able to lead without a lid, a container being placed upon you—don’t invite me to the table in order for me to just be silent.”

Jalitza Martinez is associate superintendent of staff and district operations for East Aurora District 131. She says she’s frequently encountered women who are unsupportive of other women.

“It’s never about the work,” Martinez said. “When we are not supportive of our female leaders—of women of color in leadership—we’re not supportive of our own voices. When we see this happening, we stop internalizing our accomplishments. We discredit our self-worth. We doubt ourselves. But you know who does a really good job internalizing their accomplishments? Men.”

Homes said research supports this, and it is a motivating factor behind organizing WELL. Women are less likely than men to apply for a job that includes skill sets they don’t have.

“We say to ourselves, if we can’t do everything, I can’t do it at all,” Homes said. Conversely, men could scan a list of requirements in a job description and prioritize the things they can do, over the things they can’t.

“If [men] can resonate with one or two of those bulleted items, they actually focus on the positivity that I can do these things, therefore I can do all of it.”

Former Chicago Public Schools chief Cheryl Watkins gave the WELL Summit’s closing address.

“We as women in education get in trouble because as leaders, we’re the ones called upon every day to resolve situations,” Watkins said to a room of nearly 400 current and aspiring female leaders.

“We’re the answer keepers. We’re the problem solvers. We are the Mrs. Fix-Its with our toolbelts of responses and resolutions firmly secured around our waists. But here is the mistake we make: Even though we’ve got those superpowers, we try to control the situations laid at our feet rather than engaging in preparation, so the situations don’t end up controlling us.”

Watkins gave seven pro-tips for turning challenges into triumphs, anchored by her experience opening a Chicago school that subsequently closed in 2013.

“I’m not telling you to compare yourself to anyone else, but I am telling you to take a look at yourself. You have nothing to prove to anyone else; you have everything to prove to yourself," she said.

Next year’s WELL summit will return to Normal on March 14 and 15, 2024. The year after that is up for grabs since the conference is quickly outgrowing its venue—a good problem to have, as more women pull up a seat to the table at Illinois schools.

Lauren Warnecke is a reporter at WGLT. You can reach Lauren at lewarne@ilstu.edu.