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posted: 5/29/2017 8:00 AM

Lake County school leaders prepare to move on

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  • Fox Lake Grade School District 114 Superintendent John Donnellan is retiring after 16 years as the district's top administrator.

      Fox Lake Grade School District 114 Superintendent John Donnellan is retiring after 16 years as the district's top administrator.
    Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Fox Lake Grade School District 114 Superintendent John Donnellan is in his final days as the district's leader. He'll be retiring, and says he and his wife are "looking forward to a new chapter in our lives."

      Fox Lake Grade School District 114 Superintendent John Donnellan is in his final days as the district's leader. He'll be retiring, and says he and his wife are "looking forward to a new chapter in our lives."
    Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Fox Lake Grade School District 114 Superintendent John Donnellan shares retirement well wishes on a sign with two district teachers.

      Fox Lake Grade School District 114 Superintendent John Donnellan shares retirement well wishes on a sign with two district teachers.
    Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Fremont District 79 Superintendent Jill Gildea is leaving at the end of the school year to take over the 8,800-student Greenwich Public Schools system in Connecticut.

    Fremont District 79 Superintendent Jill Gildea is leaving at the end of the school year to take over the 8,800-student Greenwich Public Schools system in Connecticut.

  • Grayslake High School District 127 Superintendent Catherine Finger is retiring to pursue interests in a variety of fields, including selling school security systems, horseback riding and writing novels. She'll also serve on the College of Lake County board.

      Grayslake High School District 127 Superintendent Catherine Finger is retiring to pursue interests in a variety of fields, including selling school security systems, horseback riding and writing novels. She'll also serve on the College of Lake County board.
    Gilbert R. Boucher II | Staff Photographer, 2015

  • Gavin Elementary School District 37 Superintendent John Ahlemeyer is leaving at the end of the school year to take the same position with the Maroa-Forsyth school district downstate.

    Gavin Elementary School District 37 Superintendent John Ahlemeyer is leaving at the end of the school year to take the same position with the Maroa-Forsyth school district downstate.

 
 

As the school year winds down, several Lake County school districts will be bidding farewell to their top administrators, who together will be departing with about 45 years of experience leading local schools.

Their reasons for leaving vary from retirement to taking on new challenges in new communities. But the one thing they have in common is that their contributions to their school districts won't soon be forgotten.

John Donnellan, Fox Lake District 114

John Donnellan is going to miss the teaching and learning aspects of being an educator when he retires as superintendent at Fox Lake Elementary School District 114 in June.

He's not going to miss the "increased bureaucracy" from state legislators that he said has plagued public education over the years.

"I don't feel like an educator as much as I feel like a compliance officer," he said. "It's sad that public education has become such a political football for both sides."

Donnellan, 55, of Spring Grove, said he and his wife are looking forward to what retirement brings.

"I have three boys, all are grown, done with college and are gainfully employed," he said. "This seems like a natural time to begin a new chapter in our lives."

He's spent 35 years as an educator in Illinois, starting as a special education teacher at Dundee-Crown High School in Carpentersville in 1982. He moved on to become a special education coordinator at Jacobs High School in Algonquin, an assistant principal at Hampshire High School, principal at Wauconda Middle School, principal at Grant High School, then superintendent in District 114 since 2001.

The most important thing he's learned as an educator is that his profession "has some of the most dedicated, intelligent, communicative people as any profession out there."

"Being an educator is truly an art," he said. "When you have a school full of fantastic teachers, dedicated to improving the lives of children, it's a complete joy to be a part of."

Catherine Finger, Grayslake High School District 127

What will Catherine Finger do after she leaves Grayslake District 127, where she has been superintendent for 12 years? A better question might be what she won't do.

Finger will help school boards around the state select the right superintendents through her new role with the Illinois Association of School Boards. She also will work as a sales representative for a company called Navigate Prepared, which sells high-tech security systems designed to help schools in a crisis.

Finger last month was elected to the College of Lake County board of trustees, and will serve as its vice president for at least the next four years. She also wants to get back in the saddle and compete on the American Porter Horse Circuit.

"I like the fact that I'm 56 now so I can compete in the over-50s," said Finger, who has a couple of reserve world titles on her mantle.

Oh, and she has her third book coming out. "Anchored By Death" will follow the exploits of small-town police chief Josie Oliver, Finger's heroine from her previous two novels, "Cleansed by Death" and "Shattered By Death."

But she doesn't think she's putting her fingers in too many pies. "I get to play in different areas that are fun," Finger said. "It's a beauty and a blessing."

Reflecting on her time at District 127, Finger said one of the biggest challenges and most rewarding tasks was overseeing the opening of Grayslake North High School, built in 2004 to relieve the pressure on what is now called Grayslake Central High School.

"It is absolutely a thing of beauty to be able to be in charge of creating a new high school," she said. "You really create two high schools."

Jill Gildea, Fremont Elementary District 79

Fremont School District 79 Superintendent Jill Gildea is moving on from the post she's held since 2010. But it's not retirement that's luring Gildea away from the Mundelein-area district and its three schools -- it's a different job.

She's been hired as the superintendent for the Greenwich Public Schools system in Connecticut, where she starts July 1.

"The opportunity in Greenwich allows me to continue working with innovative and learner-centered practices in a K-12 district of 8,800 students," Gildea said.

Gildea praised the board members, administrators, teachers and other employees with whom she worked in District 79. She especially had kind words for executive administrative assistant and board secretary Andrea Hesse, who is retiring this summer.

"She's been a right hand support for these past seven years," Gildea said.

When asked to mention some highlights from her time in District 79, Gildea talked about the work of the schools' academic, fine arts, technology and world language programs. She proudly noted that District 79 was named a district of distinction in 2016 by District Administration magazine.

John Ahlemeyer, Gavin Elementary District 37

After 30 years of living and working in Lake County, John Ahlemeyer is returning to his downstate roots.

Ahlemeyer served as the top administrator in Gavin Elementary School District 37 for nearly 10 years. Before that, he worked at Oak Grove Elementary District 68 and Hawthorn Elementary District 73.

Ahlemeyer wrote in a farewell letter that all three school districts will hold a special place in his heart.

"From the first day on the job, I told you and others that the heart of the Gavin staff is second to none," Ahlemeyer said. "It has been a labor of love helping this district become the best it can be."

Ahlemeyer will become superintendent at Maroa-Forsyth District 2, a K-12 district of 1,200 students serving two small towns just south of Bloomington-Normal. His and his wife's immediate family live nearby.

"My wife and I are very excited to start this new adventure," he said. "As you might imagine, this is extremely emotional for both of us as we have lived, worked, and raised our family in Lake County, Illinois for the past 30 years."

• Staff writers Lee Filas and Russell Lissau contributed to this story.

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