URBANA – Standing on the steps of Urbana High School this morning surrounded by cameras and well-wishers, Gene Amberg announced that he will retire on June 30, 2007.
"It's time for a new beginning," said Amberg, head of Urbana schools for 14 years and the longest-serving superintendent in the state's large unit district system. "This is a significant personal and professional decision. I'll have new goals, new ways to invest my energy."
School board member John Dimit said the location for the announcement was appropriate in part because all five of Amberg's children graduated from the high school.
"But the site also speaks volumes about his attitude toward public education," Dimit said. "It's school-focused. District headquarters used to be called the central office when he came. They're now called the service center. That speaks to his philosophy."
Board President Joyce Hudson spoke of Amberg's leadership style. "Gene walks his talk," Hudson said. "He has integrity, he's thoughtful and he's humanitarian."
Amberg said he and his wife, Ellen, who attended the press conference, call Urbana home. "It's a community that cares deeply about education," he said. "It's been an enormous privilege to lead the schools. It's been an honor to serve."
Fielding questions from reporters, Amberg drew a laugh from the crowd when he talked about his future plans. "I'm thinking about running for governor – that's a joke!" he said.
In earlier interviews, Dimit said Amberg is "an extremely valuable asset to the district because of his vision, leadership skills and knowledge of the ins and outs of education."
"We've been thrilled to have him for as long as we have," Dimit said. "We tried to get him to stick around longer, and we wish him luck as he pursues new challenges."
He said Amberg taught board members about effective leadership and trends in education.
"We've all gained from his stewardship for our schools," Hudson said. "Gene's a special human being, a person of deep caring, integrity and wisdom. He connects with children, and he has a passion for public education."
Amberg came to Urbana in 1992 from Joplin, Mo., where he was also superintendent.
"I came here with a background of staying three to five years in a job acting as an agent of change," Amberg said. "I didn't think I'd be here to start my 15th and final year. It's a privilege, and I'm grateful to have had the chance to work with the teachers, the principals, the staff members and the students and families."
He picked Urbana for a very specific reason.
"Joplin was very homogenous," he said. "Only about 2 percent of the students were students of color. I wanted more for my children. There's a lot of urban diversity in Urbana, but that meant some adjustments for me and for the children."
The Amberg children ranged in age from 7 to 17 at the time. Amberg said his third son, Paul, was in eighth grade then, and he had the hardest adjustment. "He was used to life in a middle school with 400 children," he said. "There are 1,000 children of all stripes at Urbana Middle School. He cried himself to sleep at night. There was no one to sit with him in the cafeteria."
But the Amberg children, who are now all adults, soon had friends and regarded Urbana as home. They include John, like Paul a lawyer; Peter, who works in human resources; Michael, a teacher who's going to law school; and Elizabeth, a senior at the University of Illinois who's headed to medical school. His wife, Ellen, works for the UI alumni relations office.
Amberg picked up new skills in Urbana."There was no teachers union at Joplin," Amberg said. "Collective bargaining was an eye-opener."
He said the board and community have supported the schools and his work.
"The board's done what's in the best interests of children," Amberg said. "We've done lots in curriculum and assessment, technology and fine arts. We've made a lot of progress in diversity and in maintaining facilities."
A highlight was a 1999 bond issue that passed with 82 percent of the vote to remodel Leal School and Urbana Middle School and to build the Aquatic Center at the middle school in cooperation with the Urbana Park District.
"That vote was a real mandate for what we were doing," Amberg said. "We've paid attention to making all our facilities bright, clean and safe."
"Those were exciting times," Hudson said. "We had money to do the work, and we spent quality time working together and getting to know each other."
Amberg said he also faced hard decisions. When he arrived, he had to make budget corrections to put the district on solid financial footing, and he had to do it again beginning about 2003. But he'll leave the district with a projected $500,000 in the bank.
The hardest decisions, Amberg said, were those involving people.
"It's hard any time you have to deal with issues that affect children and families in a negative way, issues that have to do with children making wrong choices," he said. "You're entrusted with their education, but you have to make it safe for everyone. And you have to make decisions to make sure every staff member is excellent."
His biggest frustration is one common to educators. "It's the involvement of parents in children's lives," Amberg said. "Some parents could care less. How do we get everyone interested?"
The greatest rewards? "Seeing kids get degrees and seeing adults get their degrees through adult education," Amberg said. "Seeing their families in the audience. Having someone stop you in the store to say how wonderful a teacher is. Those things are very rewarding."
"I think I had a calling," he said.
Mark Netter, a member of the board since 1999, said Amberg's "never lost that hunger or fire." "He treats every year like his first," Netter said. "And he's a wonderful judge of people. Because of him, we have a deep bench. He's never lost sight of the fact that we do it for the children."
Amberg will be 56 when he leaves. He'd like to go to Argentina for a year to immerse himself in the Spanish language. He's taught a graduate class at the UI and plans to continue that.
And Amberg would like to help forge stronger ties between local schools and the UI.
"I've talked informally to officials there about how to expand UI connections to the districts, doing something more formal," Amberg said. "The UI needs strong schools here to attract top faculty. Maybe there's a role for me to play there."
He said he loves his job. "I'm not running away. I'm not dissatisfied, and I'm not leaving because of No Child Left Behind," said Amberg, who prefers words other than retirement to describe his action. "It's a transition, a new kind of learning for myself," he said. "Redirection is the word."
He said he's a little worried about the loss of his professional identity. "Being a superintendent is what I'm known for," Amberg said. "It's what I know myself for. How does that look when you're no longer there?"
But Amberg said he'll focus on the future, not the past.
"I'm a lifelong learner," he said.