WARRENSBURG — DeAnn Heck was visiting her daughter in Kansas who had just given birth when her husband, John, suffered a serious heart attack.
Some of the first people she called, as she often does when she needs someone to talk to, were fellow school superintendents Sheila Greenwood, Kristen Kendrick-Weikle and Amanda Geary.
With 864 school districts in Illinois, 531 district superintendents are men and 205 are women as of the 2013-14 school year, the latest statistics available from the Illinois State Board of Education. Yet the Macon-Piatt region boasts four.
Greenwood is superintendent of Bement schools, Kendrick-Weikle is superintendent of Warrensburg-Latham schools, Geary of Deland-Weldon schools and Heck of Central A&M schools. And Greenwood, Heck and Kendrick-Weikle are all the first female superintendents in their districts.
“We were all together one day and talking about March as Women in Leadership Month,” said Kendrick-Weikle, 42, “and I think we are unique that we have four in Macon and Piatt counties. I can't think of any region that has that many, and that's not even counting principals and that sort of thing. We can do amazing things just like our male colleagues.”
The majority of educators are women, and nearly all school administrators began as classroom teachers, yet most superintendents are male. The time required, and the stress level that rises with each step up the ladder, could be one deterrent to women, said Greenwood, 53.
“It becomes really tough, and tougher on females because of the balance that you have to have with everything else going on in your life, and most female superintendents really go the extra mile,” said Greenwood, who has 14-month-old twins at home plus older parents who need her help. “There's a little part of this where you really have to prove yourself and if you're female, you have to work a little harder. It's a balance with kids and with family life and everything else.”
Nationally, about one out of four school superintendents was female in 2014, up from 6 percent in 1992. At the current rate of 0.7 percent increase in female superintendents annually, it will take about 77 years for women to no longer be underrepresented, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
When their districts were looking for new superintendents before hiring them, Heck said, the boards had to shift their mindsets a little, because men typically dominate the field.
“We're all at different life stages,” said Heck, 57. “I didn't go back to get my principalship until my kids were through school. I started in the administration level later than a lot of women do. I just kept going because I really enjoyed it and I knew I would probably like being a superintendent.
"I'm an empty-nester. My kids are grown and I have eight grandkids, but (Greenwood and Kendrick-Weikle) are dealing with kids and it is different," she continued. "I know there are times when we have meetings and one has to go home because they have a sick kid.”
Geary has a 6-year-old son and a daughter, 9. She said her husband is loving and supportive, and she looks at her calendar a week in advance to see when she can have family dinners at home and attend her kids' activities. The youngest of six siblings, she credits her mother with being her example of juggling career and family. After Geary's parents divorced, her mother put herself through nursing school.
“I still remember sitting on her lap as a small child late at night and and she would be studying the human anatomy, but still giving me the attention that I demanded,” Geary said.
Leadership in education is more than just managing people, Kendrick-Weikle said. It's curriculum, finances, people skills, school law and knowing that some kids come to school with daunting issues from their home lives, and juggling all of that.
“I tease my husband and remind him he married a feisty, independent woman,” she said. “I was a single mom as a superintendent (before her second marriage) and I look back and think, I had some good people who influenced me along the way, who were also strong women, who encouraged me, and we have that responsibility to encourage that.”
Superintendent Tom Bertrand of Rochester schools recently contacted Kendrick-Weikle to ask her to act as a mentor to someone in his district that he believes would be a good administrator, she said.
Being able to look at the big picture while still being able to see the small pieces is critical, Heck said. A superintendent's job is to make decisions that are good for the whole district.
“If you don't have a vision and you don't set that vision, it won't work,” Heck said. “You have to be a visionary, I think, to be in this position.”
A potential administrator who can only see the viewpoint of teachers or parents or one set of stakeholders is probably not a good candidate, Kendrick-Weikle said.
“And I think we all try to keep kids at the forefront,” Greenwood said. “I also think the one thing, and I'm doing my dissertation on this, the one thing people don't realize is the politics. And that's something that can be overwhelming to someone when they first start out.
"You can talk about it, but until you experience different levels of politics that are involved in our position, it can be overwhelming to some people," Greenwood continued. "They try it out and they just don't stay in the position. As long as your focus is keeping kids at the front of the decisions, and lead your board in that direction, I think we have women who could do that.”