When Jenny Barhorst was a little girl growing up on the near Northwest Side of Chicago, her family occasionally drove out to Brookfield to go to the Brookfield Zoo and visit friends who had moved from their Chicago neighborhood to that village.
Little Jenny would marvel at what she considered the bucolic beauty of Riverside-Brookfield High School. Little did she know that she would spend the bulk of adult life teaching in a little school just steps away from it and the zoo.
This month, Barhorst retired after teaching at Hollywood School for 33 years, the last 25 as the school’s sole first-grade teacher. The Hollywood community celebrated her on May 29 with a car caravan from Brookfield Village Hall to the school made up of nearly 50 cars filled with both current and former students and their parents.
It was an emotional day for Barhorst, who began teaching at Hollywood School in 1986 when she was just 26 years old.
“This place will always be in my heart. Wherever I go, whatever I do Hollywood will be there,” Barhorst told a small crowd that gathered after the parade to bid her farewell.
After graduating from Eastern Illinois University, Barhorst spent one year teaching third and fourth grade at St. Ferdinand Catholic School in Chicago. Then she got hired to teach fourth grade at Hollywood. Eight years later after some teachers left, she switched to first grade.
“The opportunity was there and so I decided to challenge myself,” Barhorst said. “It was an adjustment, but it was a wonderful one. To spend your day with a roomful of 6 year olds is really special. You go through milestones with them like lost teeth. Those are all important in the life of a first-grader.”
Barhorst was known as strict teacher. Katie Walsh was in one of Barhorst’s first fourth-grade classes at Hollywood, and this year her daughter Ruby was in Barhorst’s final first-grade class.
“She’s always been strict,” Walsh said. “But all the students wanted to kind of impress her. She taught you how to behave for the rest of your school career.”
Walsh said that she was glad that her daughter got to have Barhorst as her teacher.
“She’s great for first grade,” Walsh said. “I was so excited for her to have Ruby because, you know, kindergarten is kind of magic and fluffy unicorns and then they have to kind of get down to work in first grade, and Ms. Barhorst is perfect for that.”
Ruby Walsh adored Barhorst.
“Ruby loved Mrs. Barhorst,” Kate Walsh said. “She’s really sad that she’s leaving. She said that she is going to miss her so much because she won’t be able to see her at school next year.”
Barhorst taught about five kids whose parents she had also taught.
“It’s really amazing to see your students grow up and become successful adults with families of their own, and for them to bring their children to the same school is really wonderful,” Barhorst said.
There can be magical moments teaching first grade.
“I will remember this forever: I believe I walked by a child at the moment she realized that she knew how to read,” Barhorst said. “She about jumped out of the chair a little. A tear came to my eye. You get so many of those special moments. The wonder that first-graders have.”
Barhorst loved teaching the life cycle of butterflies and other things to first graders, comparing her first-graders to butterflies emerging from a chrysalis.
“They’re like little sponges, they just soak everything up that you do with them and they’re just so eager for learning and experiences,” Barhorst said.
Barhorst’s formidable intelligence and no-nonsense demeanor could intimidate more than just her students.
“When I was a teacher at Hauser and we were on the negotiating team together, she scared me a little bit because she knew exactly the way things should be done and what conversations we needed to have,” said Hollywood principal Kim Hefner. “But once I got to work with her I learned so much from her whether it’s about being a teacher, being a mom, being a leader.”
After becoming principal at Hollywood and Barhorst’s boss, Hefner marveled at Barhorst’s skill as a teacher and her dedication. Even this year, she was attending training workshops during lunch breaks to learn more about how to incorporate technology into her teaching.
“She attended all of those in her very last year,” Hefner said. “And she used them and tried them. She just kind of blows me away. So many times, you hear about a teacher who is kind of taking it easy on their last year. That is not Jenny Barhorst; she is stepping up to the plate every day.”
Hefner said Barhorst was an excellent first-grade teacher who had the experience to handle any kind of student.
“She sets them up on a great path for learning,” Hefner said. “She’s direct and she knows just what the kids need to do in order to be successful and be prepared. She’ll go the extra mile to support every child, every type of learner. Her bag of tricks is so full, so deep.”
One day at the start of the school year kids were lining up to go out for recess. They weren’t going to be allowed outside without socks, and some kids didn’t wear socks on the warm day. So Barhorst pulled out a supply of white socks and gave them to any sockless kids.
Barhorst grew very attached to Hollywood School and the community during the more than three decades she taught at the school.
“I’ve spent the majority of my adult life in one place, but I’ve always felt this was a very special community, District 96, and especially the Hollywood community in Brookfield,” Barhorst said. “They make the school so much a special part of their community.”