'A real visionary': Former District 214 leader Elizabeth Ennis dies

  • Elizabeth Ennis, who served seven years as superintendent of Northwest Suburban High School District 214, is being remembered for her innovation and as a champion for underserved students. She died June 10 at 79 years old.

    Elizabeth Ennis, who served seven years as superintendent of Northwest Suburban High School District 214, is being remembered for her innovation and as a champion for underserved students. She died June 10 at 79 years old. Daily Herald File Photo

  • During her seven years as superintendent of Northwest Suburban High School District 214, Elizabeth Ennis led the establishment of the Vanguard School alternative program and the district's Newcomer Center.

    During her seven years as superintendent of Northwest Suburban High School District 214, Elizabeth Ennis led the establishment of the Vanguard School alternative program and the district's Newcomer Center. Daily Herald File Photo

 
By Eileen O. Daday
Daily Herald correspondent
Updated 6/16/2021 8:41 AM

Elizabeth Ennis spent seven years as superintendent of the state's second largest high school district, Northwest Suburban High School District 214. But despite its size and reputation, Ennis still saw room for innovation and expanded efforts to reach underserved students.

"She was a real visionary," said former District 214 board member Miriam Cooper. "We're so lucky to have had her."

 

Ennis died June 10 in New Buffalo, Michigan, where she settled in her retirement. She was 79.

The Gary, Indiana, native joined District 214 in 1990 as principal of Wheeling High School, after logging years as a teacher, principal and administrator at schools in Indiana and Oklahoma. She led Wheeling for three years before being named deputy superintendent in 1993, and then ultimately tapped to lead District 214 in 1998.

Over the next seven years, Ennis aligned the curriculum with state standards and hired new principals for five of the district's six schools. She retired in 2005 and was replaced by David Schuler, who continues to serve as superintendent.

"This is a fine, fine school district," Ennis said at the time of her retirement. "Anyone who has had the opportunity to hold the position I've held couldn't feel any other way but proud and fulfilled."

Ennis, who was the first woman principal and superintendent in the district, helped establish the Vanguard School -- an alternative program for teens not excelling in a traditional high school -- and the Newcomer Center for immigrant teenagers. Both continue today.

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"Liz invented Vanguard," Cooper said. "It came about after a year of too many expulsion hearings. We needed to do something for these kids who weren't fitting in and weren't succeeding."

Ennis had a similar vision for immigrant teens, who showed up ill-prepared to attend a suburban high school. In response, Ennis and the district designed the Newcomer Center as a total immersion into American culture and the English language.

"The philosophy was you could only stay one to two years and no longer than that," Cooper added. "If they stayed longer, they wouldn't be progressing. They needed to enculturate into their own school."

Greg Koeppen was a student at Wheeling High when Ennis served as principal. He recalls her vision in bringing the district's first computer lab to the school, but mostly he remembers her as an advocate for students and staff.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

He came to know Ennis as a mentor and credits her with helping him succeed in politics -- at 19, he was the youngest alderman elected in Prospect Heights -- and in real-world situations.

"Her advice was always from the heart," said Koeppen, now executive director of the Lake County Farm Bureau. "She had a unique way of always engaging students, politicians and the community. Her leadership and legacy continue to live on in the hallways and classrooms of all District 214 schools."

In recognition of her 15 years of leadership in District 214, school board members established the Dr. Elizabeth A. Ennis Innovative Educator Award in 2005. It is the only award in the district given to a teacher or administrator.

The award comes with a grant that encourages new and creative methods for improving student learning and achievement.

An active member of the Rotary Club in Arlington Heights during her time in the Northwest suburbs, Ennis moved to New Buffalo after retiring and served four years on the city council there.

Ennis is survived by several cousins and her partner of 34 years, Annette Van Dusen. A wake and memorial service will take place from 3 to 6 p.m. Friday, at Burns Funeral Home, 10101 Broadway in Crown Point, Indiana.

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