DANVILLE — When Gail Lewis attended Holy Family School, she told the principal that one day, she would come back and take her job.
That was said in jest, and she never dreamed it actually would happen.
Perhaps that's why Lewis is still pinching herself that she's the new chief of Danville's Catholic schools.
The 36-year-old Danville woman took over as Schlarman Academy's principal earlier this month. She succeeds Bob Rice, who retired earlier this year after 43 years in education.
Lewis was selected from among several "excellent" candidates, board President Anne Sacheli said.
"We had a number of interviews where we thought, 'No one could top this person,' and then Gail came in," Sacheli said. "She had all of the qualifications we were looking for and then some. She's enthusiastic and is devoted to the school and Christian education. And she just didn't come in with questions. She had solutions."
Lewis has already hit the ground running, Sacheli added.
"The first day she got the keys, she and her husband (Patrick) were out working on the grounds trimming bushes, painting signs," she said. "They brought the fish pond back, and we have koi in there now. She has a lot of pride in the school, and she knows that improving the building's appearance will help instill pride."
Sacheli said the new principal also has been sprucing up the insides of the buildings by hanging student art on the walls, and has been busy working with teachers on curriculum, including new science programs.
Lewis is a fourth-generation Catholic schools student who attended Holy Family School and graduated from Schlarman High in 1994. She holds a bachelor's degree in elementary education and a master's degree in educational administration from Eastern Illinois University.
"I always knew I wanted to go into education," said Lewis, who recalled spending her childhood summers "teaching" the neighborhood kids out of sample textbooks that publishing companies sent her school. "I've always loved being surrounded by kids and watching their learning take place."
Lewis spent the first 15 years of her career in the Danville public school system. At Cannon Elementary, she taught computer lab, kindergarten and first grade, as well as after-school programs and summer school. She then taught kindergarten at Meade Park Elementary in Danville. The last three years, she served as the school's data and instructional facilitator, working closely with the principal to increase student achievement by helping teachers use student assessments to drive instruction, mentoring teachers and providing additional instruction to small groups of students.
A former academy trustee, Lewis said she's excited about her new opportunity and sees it as a chance to give back.
"I feel like so many Catholic school teachers and administrators really sacrificed to work with us and give us a great education. This is my opportunity to come back and be as dedicated to the kids as they were to me," she said.
She said she is also excited to play a greater role in the education of her two children — 10-year-old Alex, who will be a fifth-grader at Schlarman, and 6-year-old Maggie, who will be starting first grade.
Lewis said plans for this year include rolling out the Project Lead the Way pre-engineering program for all seventh- and eighth-graders.
"We'll build that into our high school science the next school year, so as those students come up in high school, they can continue that," she said.
She added that the high school's science teacher is also developing a science, technology, engineering and math-based curriculum with a biomedical component.
Lewis also wants to continue and build on the school's foreign-language program. Students have the opportunity to learn French, Spanish and Mandarin Chinese.
"We want to prepare our kids to succeed in a global economy," she said. "And with those two pairings (engineering and foreign language), our students will be able to walk out of here and be very marketable."
Schlarman Academy's registration for pre-K-12 students for the 2013-14 school year will be held from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Aug. 5 at the academy's South Campus, 1307 N. Walnut St., Danville.
A back-to-school family picnic will begin at 5 p.m. Aug. 8 on the North Campus, 2112 N. Vermilion St.
The first day of school for K-12 students is Aug. 12, and the first day of preschool is Aug. 14.
Officials anticipate an enrollment of 414, similar to last year's. However, they said they hope that number will grow.