Sappington takes job with Illinois State University


By Mike Kroll and Norm Winick



Thirty years ago, Neil Sappington says he arrived Galesburg in a beat-up car with $20 in his pocket — and dreams of starting a teaching career. Tuesday, the Superintendent of Galesburg District #205 announced he was assuming “yet another new career” as assistant professor of educational administration at Illinois State University (ISU) starting August 15th. “I have been an ISU student and maintained a working relationship with the school but never actually taught or worked for them before this.”

He was hired by Dr. Patricia Class, department chair. Sappington says he wasn’t actively looking to move on but this opportunity was too good to pass up. He will remain in Galesburg for at least a year. His wife will continue teaching here and “there is no pressure to move to Bloomington-Normal.” “My wife and I will evaluate our options a year from now when my son has finished college but since one of the expectations of my new position is that I will teach courses away from Normal on a regular basis there may not be any real advantage to our moving there.”

“During the next school year I will be teaching two courses, one in Normal and the other at ISU's Palatine cohort in suburban Chicago. ISU has come to recognize that it is increasingly difficult for educators to travel to Normal to complete coursework and has established relationships with school districts across the state to take the university to the student. This allows districts to develop and nurture new administrators from within.”

“While the details of my teaching responsibilities haven't yet been finalized I will be teaching graduate level courses in the master's degree program for educational administration. Initially my time will be spent in the principal's preparation coursework but eventually I will become involved in coursework required for the superintendent's endorsement.”

 “ISU posted the opening sometime in mid-January or early February I believe but I didn't hear about it until someone contacted me and asked if I would consider applying. Even then I debated with myself before finally sending in my materials just ahead of the February 28th deadline.”

 “The ISU educational administration department was looking for a practitioner with a history of experience as a school administrator across the K through 12 levels. My understanding is that some of the important aspects of my background that helped me get this position were my involvement with school and curriculum improvement programs and developing innovative and affordable responses to state or federal mandates.”

Sappington isn’t optimistic that Galesburg will have his successor in place by next school year. “It will not be likely that the district will have much success finding a permanent replacement for me before the next school year but I do feel I gave as much notice as I could under the circumstances. I wasn't actively looking for a new position and just this year my contract was extended through the 2007 school year. I did inform the school board chair that I had applied and interviewed for the ISU position. When I was offered the job on April 15th I informed the remainder of the school board. It is probable that the district will hire two or three interim superintendents to get through the next school year and this is not a currently good market in which to hunt for a superintendent.”

“The biggest problem my successor will face is how to deal with the financial decline of this district. We have made significant budget cuts for the last four years and it keeps getting tougher. I totally support changing the funding of public schools from its reliance on inequitable property taxes toward a combination of sales and income taxes. All of the blue ribbon panels that have looked at Illinois school funding have reached the same conclusion.”

Of current administrators, only one is qualified to serve as Superintendent. “Jim Rich would be a qualified replacement but he is retiring this year. He could serve as an interim after July if he and the board were so inclined but no one else currently in the district is fully qualified at this point. Director of Curriculum Joel Estes is real close and might have his endorsement sometime next school year.”

Looking back at his years in Galesburg, both as Superintendent and Assistant Superintendent for Curriculum, Sappington says his major accomplishment has been the new elementary curriculum and assessment program. “I am proud to report that since implementing these changes we have produced some amazing results.”

He also oversaw the planning and implementation of the four-block schedule at Galesburg High School and the conversion of the two junior highs to middle schools.

“It is hard to compare the graduation rate between high schools because of the wide range of differing factors each school faces. What can be done is to compare a high school to itself over time and I believe if you do that with GHS there is clear evidence of improvement over recent years. Changing the schedule alone cannot account for these changes alone and we have found both good and bad aspects to the four-block schedule but overall it has delivered the results we were looking to accomplish. In the past our data showed the freshmen year of high school accounted for the largest number of lost students than any other grade level.”

“The four-block reduces both the number of teachers a student must relate to as well as the variety of different expectations that the student must accommodate. It has helped reduce our dropout rate considerably.”

“During my tenure here I believe the school board has been very supportive. Galesburg is fortunate to have an active school board that does not function as either a caretaker or rubberstamp. We have a very innovative and forward-thinking board. We have made more changes, significant changes, in the last ten years than in the previous 20 years and done so in a constantly changing financial and demographic climate.”

“In this job, if you just do what is best for the kids given the circumstances, your actions will almost always result in unhappy parents, staff or board members. That is the nature of the task and I believe I have tackled numerous challenges during my career always keeping the best interest of the kids as my central priority.”

He also adds that he feels that he has had good relationships with the unions and they recognize the budgetary constraints of Illinois school districts: “I was very pleased with the GEA's approach to the last bargaining process. They recognized the financial limitations and challenges facing the school district and bargained realistically.”

In his new job, Sappington does not expect to disappear from the political arena that envelops education. “I hope that I am able to take a more active role as an advocate for necessary educational reform here in Illinois. There are a number of state and federal programs and requirements that are unrealistic and reflect a poor understanding of the actual situation confronting public schools today.”

“For example, top down accountability such as mandated by the No Child Left Behind initiative simply does not work and there is plenty of data to show this. Achieving accountability has to be a product of a two-way dialog and it must be accompanied by realistic expectations and funding. I think it is very hard for politicians who never attended public schools to fully understand or relate to the public school experience.”

 “The inclusion of special needs students has been an improvement overall for the students but it has also created some additional challenges for teachers and schools.”

There are a lot of issues in education to be addressed and the solutions will ultimately come from outside local school districts. Neil Sappington will be looking at them from an academic viewpoint built on the foundation of his 30 years in the field.

He says he doesn’t leave with any reservations or hostility. The election of at least one school board member who campaigned on making administrative changes and reductions was not a factor: “District 205 has been very good to me during my career.”