There is a new leader at the helm in Riverside Elementary School District 96. Dr. Bhavna Sharma-Lewis took over as superintendent earlier this month, bringing a new style, new energy and new staff to a district that recently completed a tumultuous year.
Sharma-Lewis replaces Jonathan Lamberson, who retired in June after eight years as superintendent.
“I’m glad she’s here,” said District 96 school board President Mary Rose Mangia. “I like her. She is positive, she’s proactive. She moves. She doesn’t let grass grow under her feet, and that’s important.
“She likes to make decisions working closely with the board,” added Mangia. “I feel that she’s got the experience in education to really help us with strengthening our district, both our education, our curriculum and our financials.”
Sharma-Lewis is working with a very different school board than the one that hired her back in December. It has three brand new members, elected in April. Mangia, one of those newcomers, is also the board’s new president. Rachel Marrello, another newcomer, is vice president.
One of Sharma-Lewis’s first tasks will be to improve relations with parents. Lamberson was often seen as aloof and operated the district in an office in North Riverside, outside of the district’s boundaries. Many parents found him distant and unresponsive and many were outraged by his high salary.
Lamberson often kept a tight control on information, and board members sometimes complained they did not always know about things going on within the district.
The school board expects a much different style from Sharma-Lewis and is focusing on openness and transparency.
At the end of June the district moved its administrative headquarters back to its former location at Central School as part of that effort.
“I think moving back here is a sign of openness and accessibility,” Sharma-Lewis told the Landmark during an interview in her office last week, “that we are part of the district and we welcome the community and parents to come on campus and visit us.”
She has made her office more welcoming by bringing in a couple of her own chairs and a small table.
School board members expect Sharma-Lewis to set a different tone for the district.
“I think she has a great personality that will be a nice change of pace for the district,” said board member Art Perry.
While Lamberson’s strength was in finance, Sharma-Lewis has a strong background in curriculum.
“I’m extremely excited about having her on board, and I’ve already appreciated what she brings to the table,” said board member David Kodama. “I’m expecting that she is going to come at it with great passion and commitment to bring true rigor and relevance to our education and learning environment.”
Sharma-Lewis comes to District 96 after serving for the past three years as the superintendent of Harrison School District 36, a one-school district in Wonder Lake in McHenry County.
Prior to that she served as the assistant superintendent for curriculum and development at Addison Elementary School District 4, after working as a principal at two schools, six years at Edison School in Elmhurst and three years at her alma mater, Middleton Elementary School in Skokie.
She was just 28 years old when she became the principal at Middleton. She began her career as a junior high math teacher for one year and then taught fifth grade in Deerfield for four years.
Sharma-Lewis is not the only new face in District 96. Joining her are two new top administrators taking over in newly created posts. Zach Zayed is the district’s first director of finance and operations and Brian Ganan is the district’s director of academic excellence. Completing the makeover, there are two new principals: Todd Gierman at Ames School and Peter Gatz at Central School.
The new administrative triumvirate will replace Lamberson, who was aided by principals who also had district wide responsibilities. Under Sharma-Lewis the principals will focus on their schools.
While the creation of a new finance position was expected the director of academic excellence was not a foregone conclusion. But Sharma-Lewis persuaded school board members that the position was needed to, among other things, help her and the district prepare for the new Common Core standards to be implemented in the next couple of years and a new teacher evaluation system mandated by the state.
“We want a superintendent who is going to be much more visible, so that is going to demand more of the superintendent’s time,” Kodama said. “Her plate is extremely full. I saw the rationale quickly for bringing in someone for the position of director of academic excellence.”
In their first few weeks on the job the new administrative team has been working on three goals that the school board and Sharma-Lewis have identified as top priorities: academic and professional excellence, financial and operational excellence and developing a more open and rigorous communication plan with stakeholders.
“We have a great team of professionals and have been doing great work planning and organizing on our priorities,” Sharma-Lewis said. “They are focused, committed professionals.
“With the three of us working together, we’re going to create some excellent programs to support our staff.”