Champaign principals plan retirement this fall

By Shannon Smith

Three principals from Champaign’s Unit 4 schools are retiring this fall, with a combined experience of more than 100 years – nearly 80 of those in the district alone. As the community says goodbye to the service of these educators, they will meet to discuss the selection of the replacements.

Ralph Leffler, principal at Carrie Busey Elementary School, has served the district for 37 years, 36 of those at Carrie Busey. As principal for the past 12 years, Leffler said he has faced a few challenges.

“The last few years with No Child Left Behind have been a challenge,” Leffler said. “Looking at student learning and being accountable for that and meeting the diverse needs of our students is also a challenge.”

Christine Brinkley, principal at Barkstall Elementary School, came to Barkstall just two years ago, but she too has been presented with challenges. She said at that time test scores were a big issue, and it was something that she, the students and the staff really had to work toward.

“The one (challenge) facing me when I came was the achievement gap between white students and African-American students in reading, writing and math,” Brinkley said. “It was not something that I did alone though. It was something we worked together as a staff to accomplish.”

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    Brinkley said that while her job has been difficult at times, it has come with great rewards as well.

    “I really think the children are the greatest reward,” Brinkley said. “I’ve been in this business 37 and a half years. Whether as a classroom teacher or principal, the greatest joy is when children’s eyes light up because of something they’ve accomplished.”

    Leffler agreed that it is the everyday experiences that can make the biggest difference in the lives of the students, as well as in his own.

    “The overall positive movement that we’ve made with some of our students and some of our families has been a major accomplishment,” Leffler said. “Some of those little things make the difference.”

    Don Hansen, principal of Central High School, said his greatest reward is seeing the number of lives he has been able to touch. He has been at Central for 29 years, serving as a teacher, dean, assistant principal and principal.

    “I can’t go anywhere without seeing someone who graduated from Central,” Hansen said. “I went out to eat (Monday) night and saw someone I knew who said, ‘You can’t do anything without someone knowing who you are.’ I really cherish those memories.”

    Hansen said it has not always been an easy road. He said the recent shortage of teachers has made it difficult to find the best of the best.

    “I think the biggest challenge as an administrator is being able to find those superstar teachers that can motivate kids and take them to the nth degree,” Hansen said. “With the shortage of teachers in the last five years or 10 years, you have to work a little harder at finding them. The good teachers result in a great education for our students.”

    With retirement just around the corner, all three of the principals say they have already begun planning what to do with their free time.

    “I am going to sleep in a little bit,” Hansen said. “I enjoy traveling a lot, and I have a number of places on my list. I am also going to do a little consulting around the state and keep my finger in education.”

    Brinkley said she would also like to continue to be a part of the education system, working in curriculum.

    “I’d also like to travel a little bit,” Brinkley said. “I’ve always wanted to go to Alaska. I’ve never been to the northeast to see the colors of the fall.”

    Traveling is on Leffler’s mind as well. Along with taking trips, doing small projects at home are his only immediate plans.

    “I have a daughter who lives in North Carolina, so I plan to spend time with her and her husband,” Leffler said. “My wife and I have traveled to most of the 50 states, so maybe we’ll repeat some of those trips we really enjoyed and branch out past the continental U.S.”

    As these principals leave in the fall, the administration has the responsibility of selecting new staff members to take their place. However, parents and community members are encouraged to supply input so that the administration is able to develop profiles of the type of candidate the community is seeking.

    A forum will be held May 2 at 6:30 p.m. in the gymnasium at Barkstall so community members can give their input. A similar meeting will be held on May 3 at 7 p.m. in the library at Carrie Busey. Staff members also have been given a designated time to have their say in the selection.

    Parents and community members already met at an open forum on Feb. 21 to discuss the profile for Central’s new principal. Teachers and staff members were also able to give their input at a meeting on Feb. 10.

    According to the Champaign Unit 4 School District Web site, the candidate profiles will be used to screen applications and help in the interview process. After the interview process is complete, a date will be set for the community to meet the finalists for the position of principals.

    As parting words, each of the retiring principals said they made the right decision to go into education and found it to be a rewarding career.

    “My roommates in college changed their major at least once or twice, and I never did,” Hansen said. “I had it in my mind that I wanted to be a teacher and a coach since junior high and never wavered from that. It’s been a very fulfilling career, and if I had to do it all over again, I would do it exactly the same.”