The work Donna Leak has done as a school administrator the past six years has won her the 2021 Illinois Superintendent of the Year honor.
The Flossmoor resident, who started her teaching career at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, has spent more than 30 years in the education field. Today Leak is the superintendent for Sauk Village District 168.
She was selected for the state honor based on her leadership for learning, communication, professionalism and community involvement. The Illinois Association of School Administrators presented the honor during a virtual program in December.
Leak’s work in the community has led to a greater connection between the schools and the parents and community members. She has worked with staff to improve student test scores and revamped the district's pre-school program to make certain students are prepared for kindergarten. The district has hired an additional counselor and social workers to help meet students’ social-emotional needs.
Leak said her role as superintendent is more than paperwork and meeting state and federal guidelines. When she advocates for a position, it is to make certain her students and teachers have what they need to succeed.
Before her current position, she was an administrator and superintendent in Rich Township District 227, a special projects manager for a science grant in the Chicago Public Schools and an international consultant on programs for math teachers.
She began her career in education when she student taught at Homewood-Flossmoor High School, and in 1990 she accepted a position as a math teacher.
Within three years, Leak was the math department chairperson — the youngest and first African American to hold the position. She said she got the job because she had planned how H-F would prepare for technology in the classroom and incorporate it into the pedagogy.
“All the technology we have now that are second nature we didn’t have. We were at the forefront of graphing calculators. We were there on the front lines,” she recalled. She also remembers that H-F gave teachers and administrators the chance to attend state and national meetings.
Leak said the intention was for H-F staff to “know what was going on across the state, nationally, internationally to really fine tune our skills.”
She presented at the National Council of Teachers of Math conferences for a number of years. It was at one of those meetings that a consultant for the Department of Defense/American Schools Abroad asked her to work as a consultant for teachers programs.
She hesitated about leaving H-F, where she enjoyed her job and was the cheerleading coach. She had just finished her doctoral degree work at Loyola University.
It was then-Superintendent Laura Murray who encouraged her to take the position that would expand her world view and knowledge. For six years, Leak traveled across the U.S. and around the globe.
“It was an experience that I think until today really transitioned what I understood about education,” she said, and it helped her “bring different kinds of visions back to the districts I work in. What’s possible. We insert ourselves into education, and because we haven't seen it we really aren't able to think beyond what you have seen. It was an experience that I would not trade for the world.”
Leak decided to leave the world of constant travel and took a vice president of consultants position that allowed her to stay local but work with others.
She took a position with a science foundation that was helping math teachers in Chicago.
Her next position was principal at one of the District 227 schools. She rose the administrative ladder over eight years there and was the superintendent’s position that she held for three years, before being appointed District 168 superintendent.
Leak reflects on her role as a teacher over the past three decades and is proud of the successes of those she has taught and mentored.
“I wish we as a country could wrap our minds around education the way other countries do,” she said. “It is a profession that is very much like the medical profession in that we are practitioners constantly honing our skills to create and craft and shape young minds to have the capacity to move on and then ultimately be contributors to the next generation and contributors to society and to the community.”
Outside of her work locally, Leak is serving as a vice chair of the Illinois State Board of Education. She is the only board member who works as a superintendent. The position has offered her insights into how ISBE coordinates its work with the Illinois legislature that passes laws that ISBE then must put in place.
Leak said she regularly calls superintendents around the state asking them to comment on future matters because their opinions can make a difference.
“At the table, as someone who’s (a superintendent) living and breathing what comes from the state board, I’m able to say this is the impact, this is what it looks like.”