Dr. Genevra Walters Named 2024 Illinois Superintendent of the Year

Dr. Genevra Walters, superintendent of Kankakee SD #111, has been named the 2024 Illinois Superintendent of the Year by the Illinois Association of School Administrators. 

The award was presented Sunday (November 19) during the Joint Annual Conference in Chicago co-sponsored by the Illinois Association of School Boards (IASB), the Illinois Association of School Business Officials (IASBO) and IASA. Nominees are judged on the following criteria: academic achievement, preparing students for the future, social-emotional support, teaching and instruction and leadership.

An independent panel commissioned by IASA selected Dr. Walters for Illinois Superintendent of the Year based on innovative approaches the district has taken to best serve a diverse student population. Kankakee SD #111 is a high poverty, high minority district located one hour south of Chicago.

“As an educational leader, it is a great honor to serve the community where I was born, raised, and currently reside,” said Walters, who has been an educator for 31 years and superintendent of Kankakee SD #111 for nine years. “Education is the foundation of a prosperous life filled with endless opportunities that can span generations. Although the role of superintendents has become progressively more challenging recently, the significance of our work is crucial. As we move forward post-Covid, we must consider the future of not only Illinois but also the entire country.”

Through an emphasis on securing grant funding, community outreach and developing partnerships, Dr. Walters has reimagined what public education looks like in Kankakee SD #111. Innovative programs that have occurred during her leadership include:

Youth Empowerment Program

The Youth Empowerment Program (YEP), funded by the R3 Grant through the Illinois Criminal Information Authority, serves over 800 students in grades 6 through 12. 

YEP encompasses numerous programs and partnerships that aim to empower youth through mentorship, education and innovative services. Key partners are the Kankakee County State’s Attorney, City of Kankakee, City Life Center and Hippocrates Health Clinic. Programs and services offered through YEP include:

  • Kankakee County Teen Court is an alternative to a traditional juvenile court. It provides juvenile offenders the opportunity to be given a constructive sentence by a peer jury. Research has shown Teen Court to be successful in reducing teen recidivism rates. 
  • Student Employment: Kankakee High School students can support themselves and their families financially as well as develop career and life skills through numerous student employment opportunities sponsored by the Youth Empowerment Program. 
  • National Youth Project Using Minibikes connects students with a caring adult and a trail bike to help them learn how to care for and safely ride in the outdoors. The program was in response to teenagers driving unlicensed dirt bikes or ATVs on city streets.
  • Mentoring: Students enrolled in the Youth Empowerment Program are partnered with a mentor through junior high and high school. The mentor helps them make the transition to adulthood. 
  • The Parent Education Program is designed to provide guidance, assistance, and support to parents. The program covers everything from college preparation to exploration of the trades. The initiative also focuses on the development of life skills and social skills for the workplace. 
  • Social-Emotional Learning Coaches: The district hired 14 Social-Emotional Learning Coaches during FY 23 to support students with attendance, work completion, crisis intervention, executive functioning and social interaction. 

Competency-Based Learning 

Dr. Walters ushered in a new era of teaching and learning through participation in Competency-Based Learning, which shifts the focus from seat to time to mastery of 21st-century skills. Kankakee SD #111 was among 10 districts chosen in 2017 to participate in the state’s pilot program. 

Since then, Kankakee SD #111’s “Learning Anywhere, Anytime” model of asynchronous learning has resulted in an increase to the four-year graduation rate and the number of students attending Kankakee Community College and the Kankakee Area Career Center. 

As part of the shift in thinking, school buildings in Kankakee SD #111 are open from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. The district also leverages a cadre of remote teachers to provide tutoring and virtual support to students beyond the normal school hours. 

Career Exploration and Grade Level Instruction 

Dr. Walters has infused academics with career exploration throughout the learning process. Kankakee SD #111 partnered with Defined Learning Projects to implement lesson plans that are centered around real-world examples, making them more relevant to students. Beginning at kindergarten, each grade level has a focus area tied to different careers. 

In addition, the district partnered with The New Teacher Project (TNTP) in 2019 to evaluate the amount of instruction provided across the district at grade level.The partnership with TNTP boosted access to grade level assignments/instruction to 78 percent, up from 30 percent. As a result, Kankakee SD #111 has experienced significant growth on local assessment data.

Community Outreach 

Throughout her tenure, Dr. Walters has fostered community outreach efforts that have targeted food insecurity, technology access, violence prevention, mental health and clothing for needy students and families. Examples of community outreach efforts include:

  • Purchased and renovated a Food Truck to provide mobile meals throughout the community. Also partnered with the Northern Illinois Food Bank for meals and local food banks to help with refrigeration of perishable foods. 
  • Provided hot spots for families lacking Wi-fi and started “Linked Up Days” where parents and families come to school to receive additional support with technology and software programs. 
  • Partnered with Kankakee State’s Attorney for community outreach and restorative justice positions. Also facilitated community meetings around gun violence and secured grant funding to install lighting around school buildings. 
  • Partnered with Project Sun to develop systems for supporting student mental health. Expanded home visits to support families with wellness, academic assistance, food delivery and technology. 
  • Partnered with Kiwanis, Telecom Pioneers and the teacher’s union to provide students with shoes and clothing. 

Facilities Renovations

During Dr. Walter’s tenure, the district has undergone massive renovations to facilities, including a transformation of Kankakee High School. The district is in the process of building a Community Center that will include learning spaces and offices for JROTC, childcare and the Youth Empowerment program. In addition, the space will feature four basketball courts and a 200-meter track. Furthermore, a new building for students with disabilities transitioning to adulthood will open in 2024. The building will feature a simulated living room, bedroom, kitchen, laundry room, manufacturing area of Kankakee gear and community store.

“On behalf of the Kankakee District 111 School Board, we are so very proud of Dr. Walters and congratulate her for earning this well deserved acknowledgment of her many accomplishments as our superintendent,” said Christopher Bohlen, School Board President of Kankakee SD #111. “This honor underscores her many accomplishments in our schools. During her tenure, we have restored fiscal integrity, rebuilt our high school, established and upgraded a transition center and assumed operation of our transportation system, all because of her leadership. But, of more significance, our students are offered opportunities for learning that did not exist before her return to Kankakee. The transition to Competency-Based Education has had profound effects on our approach to both learning and teaching. Dr. Walters has the battle scars to show that change is difficult and not always welcomed. But Dr. Walters’ tenure with our district has shown that change can bring profound results as we work to assure our students become competent adults.”  

The Illinois Association of School Administrators (IASA) is the state’s premier advocacy organization for school administrators with nearly 1,750 members. Dr. Brent Clark, Executive Director of IASA, described Dr. Walters as an innovator who is never satisfied with the status quo.

“Dr. Walters recognized early on that the traditional approach to schooling would not meet the needs of students in Kankakee SD #111,” Clark said. “She has continuously thought outside the box and brought in programs and services focused on lifting up the whole child and setting them on a path to succeed as an adult. Her relentless passion to innovate and reach underserved students makes her deserving of being named Illinois Superintendent of the Year.”