Blue Ribbon-winning Emerson Elementary a 'hidden treasure' in Wheaton

  • First-grade teacher Beth Gunther, left foreground, teaches a reading lesson at Emerson School in Wheaton.

      First-grade teacher Beth Gunther, left foreground, teaches a reading lesson at Emerson School in Wheaton. Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Fifth-grade teacher Gillian Wilson works with Myles James, center, and Alex Bravo on their keyboarding skills at Emerson Elementary in Wheaton. The school is one of only 13 in Illinois to be designated a 2015 National Blue Ribbon School.

      Fifth-grade teacher Gillian Wilson works with Myles James, center, and Alex Bravo on their keyboarding skills at Emerson Elementary in Wheaton. The school is one of only 13 in Illinois to be designated a 2015 National Blue Ribbon School. Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • First-grade teacher Beth Gunther leads a game to teach a reading lesson at Emerson School in Wheaton.

      First-grade teacher Beth Gunther leads a game to teach a reading lesson at Emerson School in Wheaton. Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Principal Debra Klein says the core of Emerson Elementary's philosophy is "linking home and school, and letting people use their talents in different ways."

      Principal Debra Klein says the core of Emerson Elementary's philosophy is "linking home and school, and letting people use their talents in different ways." Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Emerson Elementary is one of five schools in DuPage County to receive a 2015 National Blue Ribbon School award.

      Emerson Elementary is one of five schools in DuPage County to receive a 2015 National Blue Ribbon School award. Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

  • Emerson Elementary is one of five schools in DuPage County to receive a 2015 National Blue Ribbon School award.

      Emerson Elementary is one of five schools in DuPage County to receive a 2015 National Blue Ribbon School award. Scott Sanders | Staff Photographer

 
 
Posted10/23/2015 6:09 AM

Anyone who passes through Emerson Elementary's hallways a few times can understand why it is often referred to as a "hidden treasure."

"I don't know that when people hear Wheaton, if Emerson School ever is the (school) that pops into their mind," Principal Debra Klein said. "We're kind of tucked in the neighborhood. It's not a very affluent community."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

The school was built in 1953 to support the growth of young, middle-class families during the baby boom.

Now, more than 25 percent of the population is considered low-income. Students come from a variety of backgrounds, speaking 17 different languages. And many of the homes nearby have been turned into rental properties, resulting in a high mobility rate.

But some things haven't changed.

Students still walk and bike to school every day, a rarity in the suburbs. Parents are actively involved, even if they are busy with two jobs. And teachers treat the children like their own.

"It's just got a feeling about it," said first-grade teacher Beth Gunther, who loves the school so much she has stayed for her entire 34-year career. "The parents are concerned about teachers and what's going on in our lives, we're concerned about what's going on in their lives. That relationship piece that we build with our students, with our parents, with our community just pulls us all together, and we work as a team."

So it wasn't much of a surprise to staff and families when the U.S. Department of Education last month named Emerson a 2015 National Blue Ribbon School.

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"You don't go into this job to try to win awards, you don't go into this job to get accolades. You go into this job because you have a passion for reaching children," Klein said. "Now we're starting to realize, 'Oh, it's a big deal.' We were just in the mode of, 'What's best for kids? And how do we meet their needs?' That's always been our mindset."

Building solid relationships among staff and with students and families has always been at the core of the school's philosophy, Klein said.

Parents offer immense support to the school, not only by volunteering, but by leading clubs and activities that coincide with their personal interests.

"If there's a parent that has a passion about something, we bring it to PTA and help them structure it so they can share their gift with all the children," Klein said.

For example, a mother who once worked as an actress in Los Angeles started a drama club at the school. Another set of parents who love science started a STEAM, or science, technology, engineering, art and math, club.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

When it comes to her staff, Klein said she doesn't look for "cookie cutter teachers" either.

"There may be somebody who teaches very differently than I would and you need that, because different kids need different things," she said. "I think it's my job to support and encourage and then let them do their thing."

Throughout the year, there are many fundraisers to help families in need, along with efforts to raise money for a Kindness Matters fund that a former teacher set up at the time of her retirement.

"A student who is hungry, who doesn't have the clothes that he needs, is worrying about those things, isn't going to be available to learn, so we want to make sure those needs get met," said social worker Ruth Graunke. "The Kindness Matters fund is a great resource that we are lucky to have. It's really been a lifesaver."

While there are significant challenges, staff members try to keep things light by incorporating humor into their day. Everyone in the school is reading the book "The Lemonade War" this fall, so, to celebrate, photos of teachers, secretaries and even the custodian making goofy faces with lemons in their mouths dot the walls.

"This is probably the hardest job I've ever had, and if you don't laugh and enjoy each other, you could feel overwhelmed by the responsibilities," Klein said. "We do take time to just be silly once in a while and be silly with the kids."

It starts from the top. Klein, always smiling, is the most bubbly person in the building. As she walks through the school, she waves at students and greets them by name. She gives high-fives and praises them for their good behavior, and they are happy to interact with her.

"When I say 'our Emerson family' I don't mean that in a flippant way," she said. "I really feel like it's an Emerson family."

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