By Bob Skolnik
Merryl Brownlow, the highly regarded assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction at Riverside Elementary School District 96, is leaving this summer to become superintendent at a small school district in the southwest suburbs.
On Jan. 9, the Palos Heights School District 128 Board of Education voted unanimously to hire Brownlow as its next superintendent. Brownlow will remain at District 96 until she starts her new job on July 1.
District 128 is a K-8 district that has four schools but only about 700 students, making it less than half the size of District 96. Since it is such a small district, it does not have an assistant superintendent position or curriculum director position, which made the job especially attractive to Brownlow.
"It has the opportunity to be the superintendent and still wear the curriculum director hat," Brownlow said. "If I didn't have that opportunity to really still be engaged in curriculum it probably wouldn't have been something that would have been appealing to me."
Brownlow earned a doctoral degree and her superintendent's endorsement last year from National Louis University. Brownlow will have to reimburse District 96 about $28,000 in graduate school tuition payments that District 96 made for her over the past two years.
In an effort to keep Brownlow at District 96 for as long as possible, the district had a clause inserted into her contract that said that the district would pay for her tuition in a doctoral program, but that she would have to repay the district if she left within two years of receiving the degree.
Brownlow received a three-year contract from District 128 and will be paid $156,000 in her first year. She will also receive $6,100 in "transition pay" for 10 days of work for her new district before officially taking over in District 128. This work will be done while she is taking vacation days from District 96.
She is being paid $145,810 this year at District 96.
Brownlow came to District 96 in 2015 and has been a whirlwind of activity ever since she started on the job. She has been an energetic and collaborative leader who has impressed those who have worked with her.
She led efforts to revamp the curriculum at District 96 in nearly all areas, increasing the rigor to meet the demands of the Common Core standards. New math and reading curricula have been adopted throughout the district.
New science and new social studies curricula have been adopted at L.J. Hauser Junior High School and are being piloted this year in the district's elementary schools. The district has adopted a new program for advanced learners, introduced a STEAM program at Hauser, expanded its program for students for whom English is not their native language and revamped the intervention program to help struggling students.
Brownlow also implemented a new teacher evaluation system and vastly increased the quantity and the quality of the district's professional development.
"We've touched curriculum in almost every area," Brownlow said. "While a lot was accomplished, I can't say they were my accomplishments. I think they were the district's."
School board members are disappointed that Brownlow is leaving District 96.
"I'm sad that she's going," said school board member Joel Marhoul. "She's done great work with renewing that curriculum."
School board President Jeff Miller called Brownlow's leaving "unfortunate."
Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye also praised Brownlow for the work she did at District 96.
"Merryl was effective at facilitating important team processes that improved student learning for all District 96 students," Ryan-Toye said in an email. "We know that Merryl has created pathways and systems that will allow us to continue to grow after her planned departure."
Principals in District 96 say that they will miss Brownlow.
"Merryl's work will leave a lasting footprint on the successes of District 96," said Central School Principal Pete Gatz. "Merryl had an impact on my growth as a building administrator. I cannot thank her enough for her support and guidance over the last four years."
Brownlow came to District 96 after serving for one year as the assistant superintendent for teaching and learning at Lombard District 44.
In her first year at District 96 she worked under Interim Superintendents Griff Powell and Patrick Patt, both of whom lavished praise upon her.
In fact, Patt, who is now serving as the Co-Interim Superintendent in Lyons School District 103, encouraged Brownlow this fall to apply for the job as superintendent there, but Brownlow declined.
Brownlow said the chance to keep doing curriculum work, which is her passion, is what made the District 128 job attractive to her.
Before becoming an assistant superintendent, Brownlow spent nine years as a principal, the last five at Willard School in River Forest where she worked closely with Ryan-Toye.
Brownlow's relationship with Ryan-Toye was one factor that made Ryan-Toye an especially attractive candidate for the superintendent's job in District 96.
Brownlow said that she will always treasure her time at District 96.
"I am very grateful for my experiences here," Brownlow said. "They have shaped me personally and professionally."