If Holly Eichholz weren't a kindergarten teacher, she could have made a career in the theater.

She built props for productions in college and studied theater as a minor. And that trained visual eye explains why Eichholz is known around Westmore Elementary School in Lombard for the elaborate scenes she creates in her classroom.

Her students, or "kiddos" as she calls them, returned from spring break to find their room had turned into an underwater ocean landscape.

Eichholz had set up a yellow submarine -- the U.S.S. Sunfish -- made of a cardboard grand piano box. Blue tissue paper covered the fluorescent lights. Cutout fish dangled from the ceilings.

It's not about ambience.

Eichholz, a two-time nominee for the Golden Apple award and this month's Daily Herald Top Teacher, wants her kids to leave kindergarten with a love for learning. This is their first impression of education, and Eichholz wants them to be excited to come to school.

"This is their foundation," she said. "And why not make learning enjoyable for the remainder of their school years?"

Setting the scene

Eichholz, 46, remembers a few things about kindergarten. Her teacher, Mrs. Dimeo, drove a yellow Volkswagen Beetle. She was firm, but she still devoted an area of her classroom to "dramatic play."

"It was very realistic," Eichholz said.

Eichholz also is a realist. The look of her classroom props and scenery must come close to the real thing. Her husband, Dan, is a sort of stagehand who helps her build her designs.

"I always have the vision," she said. "He has to make them work."

On an afternoon in her classroom before the christening of the U.S.S. Sunfish, Eichholz's students are working in groups on math and reading and staying on task.

"You see there's 50 million things going on in here and everyone knows what's expected of them," Eichholz said.

In one corner, Eichholz has re-created a grocery store and stocked the shelves with donations from parents. One boy wheels his shopping cart through the aisles, past the fruit and veggie stand and heads to the check out. His classmate rings the cash register.

"You're trying to bring life experiences to the classroom," Eichholz explains.

The kindergartners all know their roles without any direction from Eichholz.

"She does a really good job in making sure the kids know routines," Westmore Principal John Gibbas said. "When kids are completely done with a station, they know to clean up. They know to move to the next place without her even prompting."

Eichholz enforces those routines early in the year and then starts to pull back.

"There's not a lot of wiggle room," she said. "And the reason for that is because once you actually gain that respect and the kids know what the expectations are, you can then let go."

Giving it her all

Eichholz has been teaching kindergarten for nearly 25 years and has 54 students in her morning and afternoon sessions this year. But she also makes an impact on the rest of the school and Villa Park Elementary District 45, Gibbas said.

"Ask me a committee she's not on," he said.

She helps shape curriculum, use of technology and training for her peers on those committees. As an adviser to Westmore's student council, she recently coordinated a fundraiser that collected more than $2,000 for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

"It's just one of those things that you have a passion for what you do and you have a drive to be successful at what you do," a Eichholz said.

And shes does all that and more as a parent of two girls. She's the "team mom" for her daughter's travel volleyball squad and assists the head coach.

Ask her how she manages her time, and Eichholz says she starts her day at 4:30 a.m. with coffee. She's at the gym working out by 5.

"There are times that I am drained, and I honestly look at that as if I must have done my job correctly," Eichholz said. "Whatever I had, I gave."

A loyal audience

Eichholz, with her usual dramatic flair, invites students into her classroom if they whisper a "secret password."

She's really getting them to master vocabulary. She points to what she calls a "sight word" written on the door and asks the student to recite it. Get it wrong, and it's back to the end of the line.

They need to know 50 of those words -- words they recognize by sight when reading -- before first grade.

"It's about making things fun. Something as simple as that, and again they're practicing their reading," Eichholz said. "They want to know those sight words because they want to get in the classroom.

"So they're going to do whatever they can, but at the same time, you're just reinforcing the things that need to be taught."

It's the same inventive approach she takes to the scenes in her classroom. For the ocean unit, she lets students act as marine biologists, writing up reports on animals so they can practice forming sentences with sight words.

Her former students and their families often want to relive Eichholz's engaging classroom. On Westmore's open house night, Eichholz draws a big audience.

"The line is down around the corner," she said.

And if she wasn't a teacher, would she go into theater? Eichholz says she probably would have considered becoming a nurse because of the chance, again, "to help others."

"I look at myself as being an educator here just trying to make a difference in kids' lives," she said.