Tron Young, Joseph Arthur Middle School principal, and Dawn Elser, superintendent at Central District 104, both located in O’Fallon, Illinois, were recently honored by the Illinois Principals Association.
Putting students first has always been the focus of Tron Young, Joseph Arthur Middle School principal, and Dawn Elser, superintendent at Central District 104, even when they made the leap from teacher to administration.
Students, parents and educators have taken note of their hands-on approach, and now a state association has too. Both Young and Elser have been honored by the Illinois Principals Association, the Southwest Region, as Middle School Principal of the Year and Superintendent of the Year, respectively.
The IPA’s Southwest Region includes Jersey, Madison, St. Clair, Monroe, and Randolph counties. The awards were presented Sept. 5.
“We are blessed to have administrators who have such a big heart and who inspire students and the staff,” Brianna Anderson wrote.
During interviews, both Young and Elser expressed gratitude for being able to do what they do — and think they’re the blessed ones.
Elser, who has spent her entire 30-year career in education at Central, has been superintendent for three years. Prior to that, she was principal of Central Elementary School for nine years and had taught first grade for 17 years.
She just gravitated to being a leader, and as she got more involved in being on boards and committees, she liked contributing that way.
“I held many leadership roles in middle school and high school, so I knew I was destined to be a leader,” she said.
“It makes me proud to know I have had an impact on so many children’s lives. It means a lot to me to have touched so many parents and students,” she said.
Elser said the district has a family focus and is a close-knit group.
“Central is a tight little community school, very family-oriented. I know all the families and kids, and now some of the kids that I taught have families of their own, and I know their kids,” she said.
As for the honors to both in the same year, she said: “It’s pretty special we were both nominated. Our administration team has different talents and it’s a great advantage. We all share the same goals: That’s always what is in the children’s best interests. Central 104 is a family atmosphere where everyone truly cares about the students and each other.”
Young echoed her sentiments.
“Central 104 is a place where everyone is a family. We work together to do what is best for our students, staff, schools, and community as a whole. Every district is not like that,” he said.
The Central School District includes Central Elementary School and Joseph Arthur Middle School, and total enrollment is about 600 students in kindergarten through eighth grade, with a preschool of about 50.
As for Young’s addition as a principal, she noted: “Am I blessed to have him!”
He returned the compliment: “She definitely leads by example. She wants us to know we’re all in this together.”
Young, who has been at Central for three years, was previously at Centralia City Schools District 135 where he taught seventh grade and was a principal. He also was born and raised in Centralia and graduated from Eastern Illinois University before earning his master’s degree at SIU-Edwardsville.
DESIRE TO TEACH AT EARLY AGE
Both Elser, who grew up in Belleville, and Young had a desire to teach at an early age and singled out inspirational teachers.
“I went into teaching because of the teachers that I had in my life that inspired me. Specifically, my fifth grade teacher, Mrs. Judy Truitt. She is like my mother, friend, mentor, and most importantly role model. She has always inspired me to never settle for less than my best.
“She gave her all to her students and her teaching. My goal has always been to have as much of an impact on students as she had on me,” Young said.
Young admits he was a “talker” in class and enjoyed math.
“I loved playing school growing up with my cousins,” he said.
Elser — who earned her undergraduate degree from St. Louis University and graduate degree from SIUE — said she loves children and always played school growing up.
“I had a teacher, Mrs. Judy Koch, who I wanted to be just like when I grew up. She was so kind and had a passion for children and education,” she said.
As a model student who followed all school rules, Elser admits she was sometimes referred to as “the teacher’s pet.”
“I was a straight A student who took a great deal of pride in my education. My parents instilled the importance of an education in me,” she said.
They may be in administration, but classroom visits are a daily must, both said.
“I like the kids to see me. Interacting with the students is important and I still enjoy it. And if you need stress relief, all you have to do is go into the preschool — they just love life,” Elser said.
Young said he likes to be visible to set the tone.
“It’s all about building relationships. I have an open-door policy,” he said.
One of the fun things Young has initiated is what he calls Jams - “Friday 5,” a video shown at 5 p.m. Friday, spending five minutes with Young and a special guest to find out about “the great things happening at Joseph Arthur Middle School.”
YOUNG, ELSER OUTLINE FUTURE GOALS
As for future goals, Young said he wants to make school a place students enjoy.
“If they enjoy coming to school, they will enjoy learning as well and it will be easier to focus on the learning,” he said. “I want students to set goals, understand the work it takes to achieve them, feel the joy of accomplishing a goal, or the learning opportunity that comes from falling short and trying again.”
Elser said she would like to develop a new strategic plan for the district with clear goals and beliefs.
“I think this time in education is full of opportunities and challenges ... the opportunities that education brings for schools to inspire the students to dream big and make a huge impact on the world,” Young said. “We are preparing students for a future that has more opportunities then we can imagine.”
Young said schools are starting to refocus on the arts and sciences.
“Students are given the opportunity to be makers and doers in education. There are so many avenues for students to make their learning applicable to daily life,” he said.
“I think across the state the understanding that funding has to be fixed and at the state level, they are trying to address that with the Evidence-Based Funding formula. This is a state in the right direction to let all students know that it does not matter the zip code you live in, you are valued and worth the dollars it takes to provide a quality, equitable education,” Young added.
“Education has changed a great deal in 30 years, but the No. 1 goal is still to prepare students for college and their career. Our goal is also to prepare them for life and give them the best school experience possible,” Elser said.
“The lack of state funding makes it challenging to give students and teachers everything they need to receive a proper education. In addition, there are so many demands and requirements placed on school districts that it makes it difficult to educate students.”
PERSONAL SIDE OF THE O’FALLON EDUCATORS
Elser, who grew up in Belleville and now lives in the O’Fallon area, said in her spare time, she loves to golf and travel with friends and family.
Her dad, Barney Elser, was the longtime Belleville American Legion baseball coach and at Citizens Park in Belleville, he is honored with a street sign: Barney Elser Drive. His sister, Bev Musso, was a longtime teacher, and his brother, Bruce Elser, was a school counselor.
Young is married, and he and his wife, Kisha, have two boys, a 2-year old and a 9-month old.
By Lynn Venhaus For the Progress