What makes Longfellow a Blue Ribbon school? Teachers like Barb Williams

  • Girls cheer during physical education class at Longfellow Elementary School in Wheaton, recently named a National Blue Ribbon School. "Every day I step across that door, and I thank God that I have the privilege of being in this school because this school is a special place," their teacher Barb Williams says.

      Girls cheer during physical education class at Longfellow Elementary School in Wheaton, recently named a National Blue Ribbon School. "Every day I step across that door, and I thank God that I have the privilege of being in this school because this school is a special place," their teacher Barb Williams says. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Longfellow fourth-grader Hana Lang, 9, works on scenery for a class play.

      Longfellow fourth-grader Hana Lang, 9, works on scenery for a class play. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • "It's a remarkable community in their sense of caring," retired Principal Dianne Thornburg says of Longfellow Elementary School in Wheaton.

      "It's a remarkable community in their sense of caring," retired Principal Dianne Thornburg says of Longfellow Elementary School in Wheaton. Mark Black | Staff Photographer

  • Physical education teacher Barb Williams, holding flowers, blends science and math into her health and fitness lessons and is a big reason the school was named a 2015 National Blue Ribbon School.

    Physical education teacher Barb Williams, holding flowers, blends science and math into her health and fitness lessons and is a big reason the school was named a 2015 National Blue Ribbon School. Courtesy of Wheaton Warrenville Unit District 200

 
 
Updated 10/8/2015 9:00 AM

Barb Williams doesn't want to brag.

Yes, she's popular, but she's really telling a humbling story.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"You know that scene in 'It's a Wonderful Life'?" Williams says.

An overwhelmed George Bailey holds Zuzu next to the Christmas tree and smiles bigger than the time Mary loses her robe in the hydrangea bushes. And as a long line of friends give him their savings and help him out of a jam, Bailey realizes he's no failure.

Yeah, that Christmas three years ago was kind of like that.

Williams, a physical education teacher at Longfellow Elementary School in Wheaton, and her husband saved for their son's wedding in Texas. But they couldn't also afford airline tickets to see their grandchild in California, born with a tumor on her tailbone.

A Longfellow mom decided to raise the funds. In the end, more than 80 families contributed, their names etched into a plaque Williams displays at the school.

"Mrs. Williams, you are California-bound," it reads.

She sent them Christmas cards with a picture of her and her husband holding their new granddaughter.

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"Every day I step across that door and I thank God that I have the privilege of being in this school," Williams said with tears in her eyes, "because this school is a special place."

Ignore everything you know about gym teachers -- the whistles around the neck, the nylon track suits, the barked orders -- and then you can begin to understand Williams.

This is her 20th and final year teaching at Longfellow, and she's not retiring quietly. This spring she won the Blue Ribbon award from the Illinois Association of Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance.

And Longfellow has been named a 2015 National Blue Ribbon School by the U.S. Department of Education for the second time in eight years, putting the school in an elite class.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

What makes Longfellow special? Teachers, past and present principals and parents, remarkably, give similar answers (and, no, some didn't know a reporter would be paying a visit). They all speak of a community where educators look beyond their own classrooms, collaborate across grades and involve parents.

And that "constant conversation," as Principal Sean Walsh says, explains why a PE teacher incorporates science and math into her lessons.

"They're able to not just be this excellent teacher themselves, but they are excellent mentors to each other," says retired Longfellow Principal Dianne Thornburg, who completed the Blue Ribbon application last school year.

As a former teacher, mom Kerry Mansour knows it's not easy fostering inclusion and bridging differences in a school with roughly 400 students -- 11 percent of which are English language learners. But as the PTA president, Mansour sees the behind-the-scenes work and the teachers who treat students outside their classes as their own.

"It sort of amazes me when I think about that," she said.

Williams recently stood in front of a graph with green stickers. Students plotted how they got to school: car, bus, bike, on foot.

She planned Walk to School Day earlier this week, when teachers met in three sites around town to usher kids to school. Then students will record their mode of transportation again, this time in red stickers, and Williams hoped to see an increase in the number who chose to walk.

And just like that, kids have compared data, used principles they've learned in math classes and learned how to practice a healthy -- and environmentally-friendly -- lifestyle.

"I teach the whole child," Williams said. "Physical literacy is just as important as reading literacy and math literacy."

Williams rattles off all the events on her school calendar before she steps down, and it's clear she's thinking about the bigger picture, about inspiring kids to grow into good citizens. Next to the gym and a mural of famous district alumni, she posts clippings of former students named in the newspaper.

"That's your job to get on this alumni board," she tells her current ones.

She models that citizenship, her co-workers say, by planning a Veterans Day assembly with a committee of organizers. Kids will sing songs and read poems for dozens of vets.

Earlier, at a ceremony on the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Williams led the pledge and read a speech, slowly and deliberately. The sister of a nun and three firefighters thanked emergency responders and told the youngsters that the day is a reminder to "reach out to others and always be willing to help those around us every day."

Then, in February, she'll set up an elaborate obstacle course, a lesson about the inner workings of the heart. She likes to use creative visuals -- "the more the merrier" -- even a cow's heart she buys at the Wheaton butcher shop. It's not fun and games, but a serious mission for Williams, whose son died from a sudden heart attack.

The mom of five manages to distill cardiovascular health in ways kids understand.

"When you make unhealthy choices, this is how hard your heart has to work," she'll tell kids after toughening the course she calls "Heart Adventure."

In the spring, Williams will invite retired teachers and former students bound for college to a breakfast, hoping that their time at Longfellow "sticks with them."

"'This is where you have your roots now,'" she said. "It's time to make the world a better place. That's their job."

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