Rolling Meadows teacher earns D214’s Ennis Innovator Award

The legacy of the late Dr. Elizabeth Ennis, District 214’s sixth superintendent, lives on through the annual Dr. Elizabeth A. Ennis Innovator Award. It is presented annually to an employee or team of employees who have demonstrated leadership in the development and implementation of an idea to improve student learning […]

The legacy of the late Dr. Elizabeth Ennis, District 214’s sixth superintendent, lives on through the annual Dr. Elizabeth A. Ennis Innovator Award. It is presented annually to an employee or team of employees who have demonstrated leadership in the development and implementation of an idea to improve student learning and achievement.

The Board of Education established the Ennis Award in 2005, in honor of her own leadership during her 15-year tenure of creating advances, including the initiation and growth of Vanguard School and the Newcomer Center.

Each year, every District 214 school nominates one individual or team for the award. A District committee – composed of a Board of Education member, principal, support staff, licensed educator and central maintenance personnel – reviews each nomination and selects a recipient for the honor.

This year’s recipient is Heidi Huck, for her creation of Spanish for Native Speakers/Enrichment Programming at Rolling Meadows High School.

Here are this year’s stories of how each individual or team has created innovative programs and practices that enhance education and help students find success.

2020-21 Dr. Elizabeth A. Ennis Innovator Award Winner: Heidi Huck – Rolling Meadows High School

Heidi Huck works with heritage Spanish speakers who enter high school from either the Newcomer center or middle schools needing support in reading and writing skills. Nominators cited numerous examples of the ways in which Huck has – over the past eight years – taken painstaking steps to enhance curriculum and opportunities for students. How she has mastered grant-writing skills to expand resources.

They noted how her years-long correspondence with acclaimed Mexican American author Francisco Jimenez culminated this past year in a virtual seminar and how she leveraged an Arts Unlimited 214 grant to bring world renowned muralist Hector Duarte to work with her students. Duarte said his aim was to help students realize how valued and important they are.



In her own narrative, Huck focused on her objective of reinforcing cultural and personal pride to positively impact academic outcomes. “My goal for the last seven years,” she wrote, “has been to facilitate students’ recognition of their self-worth, their uniqueness, and their potential, and to help them to construct a new, more positive mindset toward their identity and academic future. To address students’ social-emotional barriers, I created an original curriculum that includes in-class presentations by counseling professionals to address students’ diverse needs.”

In testimony to the value of her work, many of Huck’s students return during their senior year or after graduation to cite their experiences in her class as fundamental to reaching their academic and other life goals.

Additional 2020-21 Nominees for the Ennis Innovator Award

Jack O’Neal – The Academy at Forest View

Nominators cited Associate Principal Jack O’Neal’s creation of a talk show called “That’s LIFE,” as a way to further involve families in the school and community. The talk show provides hands-on experience for students through assisting with sound, filming, graphics, weather and news reports.

“Jack,” nominators wrote, “has done an incredible job showing the uniqueness of our program to the school community and involving students in the process of this.”



In his narrative, O’Neal describes how, for 13 weeks, “That’s LIFE” featured student guests (in person and remote), community worksite visits and comedy/social skill skits in addition to news, weather and sports segments. At the end of each week, students distributed the 12- to 15-minute YouTube video to students and families.

So successful was “That’s LIFE” that it will continue in the 2021-2022 school year, perhaps expanded to include partnerships with students and staff elsewhere in District 214 and as a learning experience for students in the District’s Multimedia Communications career pathway.

Stefanie McCleish – Buffalo Grove High School

Nominators cited English and journalism teacher McCleish’s personal connections with students and staff, her adaptability in creating new units and opportunities during hybrid learning, her expansion of multimedia learning opportunities to include podcasting and livestreaming – all during a pandemic in which new means of communicating and connecting took on new importance.

In her narrative, McCleish wrote: “Recently, as a journalism educator, I knew I was at a crossroads. I knew that the field was changing and that I had a choice to make. Print publications were becoming archaic, journalists were being asked to do much more than write, and the entire industry was relying heavily on social media. I knew I had to grow, evolve and transform my teaching and students’ learning, which seemed to align with an emerging career pathway in the district.”

The results of this self-realization are too numerous to list, but they include development of BGN (Buffalo Grove Network) as a platform in which all branches of student media were merged, including the student newspaper, yearbook, BGTV and – in addition – a new podcast, the Unspoken Herd, which emerged as McCleish herself learned for the first time how to develop, produce and edit a podcast.

“Innovation in our district is nothing new,” she concludes. “Innovation simply put, is just something that is synonymous with District 214.”

Earned Honors Written and Oral Communication PLC – Elk Grove High School

At Elk Grove High School, the Earned Honors Written and Oral Communication Professional Learning Community (PLC) was nominated for their equity-oriented initiative. The team undertook a complete course redesign that has resulted in embracing the challenge of teaching heterogeneous groups of students in a rigorous environment of earned honors.

“Students should not be denied access to an AP course because they missed required skills by not being placed in an honors class as a freshman,” the team wrote in its narrative. “By reimagining what school can be for kids we are creating leaders who can reimagine what the world can be.”

The team – composed of Laura Bjankini, Abi Diaz, Sandra Lee, Jessica Maciejewski, Kevin Modelski, Kyle Pfister and Alissa Prendergast – broke new ground by reviewing and prioritizing standards, developing accurate assessments and embedding a focus on building critical thinking skills. This work resulted in a model in which all students have the opportunity to earn honors credit rather than limiting the privilege to freshmen who “tested in” or were recommended as “having what it takes” to be successful.

The result? An exponential increase in honors credit among underrepresented groups. In fact, in Elk Grove’s early stage Earned Honors pilot, 69 percent of ninth graders earned honors credit in Written and Oral Communication, an increase across all demographic groups.

Pam Gunther and Heather Kinsella – John Hersey High School

Administrative Assistants Pam Gunther and Heather Kinsella earned their nomination for their tireless work to develop COVID-19 logistics for students and staff. With the introduction of each new iteration of guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Illinois Department of Public Health, Gunther and Kinsella went to work. They adjusted numbers and charts. They reconfigured classrooms, reassigned supervisions and created safe spaces for student and staff lunch times – all of which the school relied on to adhere to guidelines and keep everyone in the building safe.

In their written narrative, Gunther and Kinsella noted the ways in which their attention to detail paid off. “In April, when the largest number of students returned, we were very prepared with classroom capacities, overflow areas and lunch spaces.” In addition, this attention to and documentation of detail – classroom capacities, overflow areas and lunch spaces – made it easier to conduct contact tracing once athletics resumed and contract tracing became more important.

As their nominator concluded, “In this past year of craziness, I believe Pam and Heather brought some calm to Hersey by solving a major issue.”

Joyce Kim – Prospect High School

Prospect High School nominators cited Teaching and Learning Facilitator Joyce Kim’s commitment to equity work. Nominators lauded her attention to those around her, saying “she makes you feel like you are the only one in the room, whether you are a colleague or student. Joyce has a heart and energy for education that goes beyond the classroom; she is consistently working to make the most of every situation for every student at Prospect High School.”

In her written narrative, Kim invoked the lessons of growing up as a first generation Korean American: staying quiet, obeying authority, respecting elders, working hard, and ignoring racist remarks and actions. From there, she fast forwards to D214 racial equity and diversity workshops, in which she was riveted by a new awareness that there are terms for what she has experienced as a person of color.

In keeping with the District’s emphasis on equity, Kim created an Institute Day presentation built around inequality, equality, equity and bias. She introduced student voices as an integral part of the workshop, resulting, she writes, in “opening everyone’s eyes to see two very different lived experiences.” That, she writes, was a turning point for the school, with “a collective resolution to do better for all of our students.”

Rise Up Team – Wheeling High School

Wheeling High School’s Rise Up Team was lauded by nominators for reimagining and revising community engagement and volunteering time to make their vision a reality. Team members flipped the traditional notion of expecting students who need additional help to seek out assistance and, instead, reached out to students and families through the Tutoring in the Park program. The team did this in order to help parents navigate the registration process, to give music lessons and provide technical and emotional support.

The team – composed of Lizbeth Arreola, Henry Brown, Elizabeth Delgado, Brad Kahler, Rebecca Kinnee, Tim Piatek and Sarah Struebing – noted in its narrative that the desire to connect with students and families persisted even when the COVID-19 pandemic rendered in-person learning impossible as the 2020-2021 school year began. In mid-August, before the school year even officially began, the team began meeting students and families in local parks – a practice that continued for 13 weeks throughout the fall. In addition to providing support for such matters as tech and registration, they handed out school supplies and food boxes and, in their own words, “tutored our hearts out!”

“Quickly,” they said, “our Saturdays in the park truly felt like a little bit of school leaked out of our building and was infiltrating the entire community.”


Edie Villetas

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