Principal's 'joyful job' earns honor in Winfield
Dawn Reinke spends her days as a joyful caregiver.
She's in charge of 330 little lives and 60 working adults whom she guides, consoles, mentors, disciplines, supports, loves.
She's part mother, part boss and all principal, a role for which she received recognition as the Elementary Principal of the Year from the DuPage Region of the Illinois Principals Association.
News of the award came via phone call from an administrator at Willowbrook High School in Villa Park, Reinke's alma mater, and it surprised no one in Winfield Elementary District 34, where she is the one and only principal.
"Mother Earth," as staff members call her, named principal of the year?
"We all went, 'We already knew that,'" said Sue Conrad, an administrative assistant in Reinke's office.
Reinke, 55, is in charge of two schools that function as one in a district so small there are no buses to take kids to school -- all live within a mile and a half, the maximum walking distance allowed by the state board of education.
In Winfield, Reinke was unknown five years ago when the superintendent posted fliers inviting everyone to come meet the new principal who would lead Winfield Primary and Winfield Central schools.
Many of them did, and Reinke was introduced to the tiny Winfield district's small-town charm, as well as its fire chief, elected officials and other community leaders.
Then she got to work.
Winfield was an unexpected change of scenery in Reinke's 25-year education career, which she'd previously spent entirely in her hometown of Villa Park. There, she lived in the center of town, taught on the south side and worked as an assistant principal on the north. She knew all the streets. People, too.
That wasn't the case 10 miles west.
"No one knows you and you don't automatically have that credibility," Reinke said. "It was important to me to build a trusting relationship as quickly as possible."
Manuals for school administrators say it takes two years. But building trust came faster for Reinke, she said, because teachers saw her in their classrooms and everyone realized she makes time for what's important.
Sure, she's in charge of a lot: curriculum for kindergarten through eighth-grade students, English instruction for students who aren't native speakers, gifted education and federal grants supporting low-income services, plus everything else principals at larger districts oversee.
But she always has time to listen to a child's explanation of misbehavior, a crossing guard's concern about an unfriendly comment or a teacher's struggles with cancer.
"I look at myself as the caregiver here, not just for my students, but for my staff members, too," Reinke said. "It's such a tight community that they feel each other's pain, but they're there to support each other, too."
So is their principal.
"They learned I'd always be right there next to them," Reinke said.
There are always 50 things on Reinke's to-do list, with priority denoted by the number of marker-drawn stars next to each item on a yellow legal pad. Her teachers have lists just as long. But Reinke knows there never will be a moment when everything is done. So she promotes balance.
She encourages staff members to find time for their "stress-free" activities -- whatever they are -- by sharing stories of hers: playing with her four grandkids, the children of her five children between ages 33 and 25.
Home for Reinke is still Villa Park. But she's brought along to her new job the teacher who helped her end up in Winfield, Melissa Doucet.
Doucet's kids went to school in Winfield while she taught in Villa Park District 45. When the principal position opened up at her children's school, she thought one of her administrators, the assistant principal Reinke, would be a perfect fit for the tight-knit community.
"I knew it would take a special person to mesh with a small group of teachers, students and parents, who are very hands-on," said Doucet, who now works in Winfield after Reinke hired her four years ago. "I knew Dawn would be able to do that very well."
But all through her career teaching kindergarten and fourth and fifth grades, Reinke didn't think she'd be a principal.
"It didn't seem like a happy job," she said.
The principals she had growing up were stern, while the teachers who instructed her as a child were laughing and kind. She remembers teaching across the hall from her kindergarten teacher when she got her first job and earlier going back to her second-grade class as an assistant while in a high school intro to teaching course.
A principal who led her school while Reinke was teaching fifth grade showed her "it can be a joyful job."
So Reinke, with her master's degrees in curriculum and instruction and in school leadership, moved on to become an administrator. Despite her years of connections in Villa Park, she followed Doucet's prompting and applied for the Winfield principal job.
"She's one of my best hires in my entire career," Superintendent Gwynne Kell said.
Reinke left because everything seemed right about the small Winfield district, down to the original one-room school house that's still connected to Winfield Primary School, where it's used as a meeting space.
Reinke's grandmother taught in a one-room school and her father attended one, so it was an extra comfort to see such a structure right outside her window -- pointed roof, red wood panels and all. Coming to Winfield was a given.
"Once I met Dr. Kell and the staff, it just seemed like the right thing to do," she said.
She's been getting rave reviews ever since, not just from those she works with, but now from the Illinois Principals Association in DuPage.
"She's helped to build a wonderful culture here," Kell said.