While interim superintendents Patrick Patt and Griff Powell have provided stability and calm to Riverside Elementary School District 96 this year, there is another significant new presence in the central office.
That would be Merryl Brownlow, District 96’s assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. On July 1, 2015, Brownlow succeeded Brian Ganan, who left District 96 to become superintendent at Komarek School District 94.
Ganan’s title at District 96, bestowed by former Superintendent Bhavna Sharma-Lewis, had been director of academic excellence, but he and Brownlow had the same job.
In just six months, Brownlow has emerged as a star administrator, impressing teachers, other administrators and parents with her sharp mind, passion for curriculum, inclusive nature, prodigious work output and bubbly personality. One principal described her as “scary smart.”
“I’ve worked with a lot of curriculum and instruction folks, and she’s the best I’ve ever experienced and ever worked with,” said Powell, who has been a superintendent for 25 years. “I didn’t have anything to do with her hire. I’m just saying she’s a delight to work with. She’s one in million; they’re lucky to have her. They better keep her.”
School board members have also been impressed with Brownlow, particularly her depth of knowledge, communication skills, and her energy and enthusiasm.
“We are certainly very happy with Merryl,” said school board Vice President Mary Rose Mangia. “We’re ecstatic. We think very highly of her. We think we did very well with that hire.”
Shari Klyber, who heads the board’s education committee, agrees.
“I think she’s an extremely valuable, kind asset to our district,” Klyber said.
Teachers are often cynical about administrators, but ones the Landmark talked to have been wowed by Brownlow.
“She is phenomenal,” said Jen Kovar, a sixth-grade language arts teacher at L.J. Hauser Junior High School. “I have been extremely impressed with her knowledge and drive.”
Another teacher also raved about Brownlow saying that she was exactly what the district needed.
“She knows what she’s talking about, she knows what she’s doing,” said the teacher who asked to remain anonymous. “I’m excited for our curriculum for the first time, I think, in a long time.”
Curriculum has been a problem in District 96. The district was slow in adapting its curriculum to the new Common Core standards, and finally began that process in earnest under Sharma-Lewis and Ganan.
Brownlow has continued the transition and is leading a committee that is looking to revamp the elementary school math curriculum.
Brownlow says that her experience as a teacher, mostly as first-grade teacher, has influenced how she does her job. She wants to know how a curriculum works in a classroom, not just how it looks on paper.
“I think my experiences and knowing what I needed to work for my students has created that lens for me,” Brownlow said. “I’m not a top down person. I want to know what’s testing with the students and whether or not they feel that we’re able to meet their needs with what we’re doing.”
Teachers appreciate that Brownlow asks them what works and what doesn’t work in the classroom.
“When you have an administrator go, ‘Oh, how does that work in a classroom?’ you go, ‘Whoa, that’s big,'” said the teacher who asked not to be identified.
Brownlow won a lot of good will from teachers by delaying for one year the implementation of a new teacher evaluation system and spending this year training teachers in the new system.
“You don’t just impose an initiative on teachers without supporting them with professional development to do it well and do it right,” Brownlow said.
Brownlow said she loves to dig into numbers and test results, but is always mindful of the individual students behind the numbers.
“It’s not always a test score,” Brownlow said. “It’s about having the conversations with the teachers about students’ performance on a daily basis and making sure that we’re triangulating what we see in test scores with what we know about students in our classrooms.
“And part of that conversation never happened before. It was strictly a black and white test score that was driving how we were programming for students rather than also looking at classroom-based work and making sure we were having conversations about how students were doing on a daily basis.”
Brownlow says she visits classrooms as often as she can to observe and talk to teachers.
“Every couple weeks I try to be out in each of the buildings,” Brownlow said. “I like to stay as close to the classroom as I can.”
Before becoming a teacher, Brownlow worked in the corporate world for five years as a buyer and sales supervisor for Macy’s and the corporate parent of Lord & Taylor where she says she learned the value of teamwork.
“You don’t do things to people, you do things with people in order to move an organization forward,” Brownlow said. “When the morale is good, student achievement will be good.”
Prior to coming to District 96, Brownlow worked for one year as an assistant superintendent for Lombard District 44. Before that she was a principal for nine years, five at Willard School in River Forest and four years in Glenview, where she grew up.
She began her career in education as a teacher in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, where she taught first grade for seven years and fifth grade for one year.
Brownlow has revamped the District 96’s Response to Intervention (RTI) program which provides extra support to struggling students. She has adjusted the program to focus more attention on the students who need it most by establishing more precise gradations in the level of support that different students need.
“Merryl has done amazing things and the staff, and the district loves her to pieces just for the expertise that she brings to the table every day,” said Central School Principal Pete Gatz.
Teachers have been impressed with the professional development that Brownlow has put together.
“The professional development experiences these teachers are having are above anything that they’ve ever experienced,” Powell said. “They’re saying that they’re really enjoying what’s been put together for them by her.”
Gatz says that Brownlow also has a rare ability to translate educational jargon into language that parents can understand.
“She breaks it down in a way that is easy for anybody to understand,” Gatz said. “That really helps the parents in the district.”
Brownlow is so valued by school board members that they will seek her input when choosing a new superintendent and will prioritize picking someone who complements her skill set. Brownlow, who is now taking graduate courses toward a doctoral degree, says that she loves her current job and is not interested in becoming a superintendent herself anytime soon.
“I’m very passionate about curriculum and instruction right now, and I want to stay as closely connected to classrooms as I can,” Brownlow said. “Once you take that leap you sort of have to let other people do that.”
Patt echoes Powell, saying he hopes Brownlow will stay in her current job for a long time.
“I agree with a lot of people that District 96 is very lucky they identified her, because I think the way she’s worked with teachers up to this point, the professional development that’s she’s run, is going to take this district a real long way curricularly,” Patt said. “They need to keep her around as long as possible.”