Robeson principal finalists address packed gymnasium
CHAMPAIGN – The two finalists for principal at Robeson Elementary School – the district's largest elementary school – both now lead small, mostly white schools.
But both stressed their experience with a diverse student body at a community forum at Robeson Tuesday night.
Heather Livengood and Kevin Lipke spoke and answered questions from a large group of parents and teachers. Nearly every seat in the school's gym was filled.
Livengood is a native of Philo and has been principal of Marshall Elementary School since 2001. She taught at Jefferson Middle School for three years before going to Marshall.
She noted that Marshall has a lot of low-income and special education students. But she misses the diversity of the Champaign school district.
"That's one reason I loved teaching here in Champaign, all the things I get to learn," Livengood said. "I think it's a total asset."
Lipke grew up in Chicago and has been principal of Jamaica Elementary/Junior High School since 2004. Before that, he taught for 10 years at Lincoln Elementary School in Jacksonville.
Lipke said more than 80 percent of Lincoln's students are minorities and come from low-income families. He said the school has an 85 percent mobility rate, and at the end of his first year there, only a fraction of the students he started with were still at the school.
The job was challenging but "I loved every minute of it," he said.
Lipke outlined the three things he believe make a school successful: student-centered lessons, including teaching that takes into account different learning styles; positive interaction between students and teachers; and collaboration between the principal and teachers.
He said he's proud of the programs he's established at Jamaica, including an accelerated reader program, Character Counts and an incentive program of academics and behavior.
When he wants a school to adopt a new program or make a change, Lipke said he thoroughly researches it, then presents it to the teachers, "knowing it can go either way. I'm not one to say, 'We have to do this.'"
Livengood also emphasized the importance of collaboration.
"Change is very hard, and coming in and saying, 'We're going to do this, this and this because I want it' – that's not my style," she said.
She was asked if she was assertive enough to back up her teachers in difficult situations. Livengood said she sees herself as a mediator, not a dictator, but she doesn't have a problem correcting things that need to be corrected.
While her current school is a third through sixth grade school, Livengood said it also includes self-contained classrooms for special education students from pre-kindergarten through sixth grade, and she oversees the curriculum for students at all those grade levels.
Brian Minsker, president of the PTA Council and a parent of a Robeson student, was impressed with both candidates.
"I feel either one would do a great job here at Robeson," he said.
A second-grade teacher and parent, Tonia Ramsay, said she wants Robeson's new principal to respect the collaboration time of teachers and to be proactive in dealing with problems.
"They both seemed very competent," she said of the finalists. "I just look forward to the matter being settled so the pit in my stomach goes away and I know who the leader will be next year."
Superintendent Arthur Culver said he expects to bring a recommendation to the school board at its special meeting Monday.