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New Decatur superintendent sets priorities and talks background

Decatur Public Schools Superintendent Rochelle Clark

DECATUR – Decatur’s new superintendent has just finished one week on the job.

Rochelle Clark steps into the top position in Decatur Public Schools at a challenging time in education. Schools are trying to catch up students who fell behind during remote learning, while both adults and children grapple with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

“In terms of discipline … we noticed that a lot of things that have been taught have been forgotten,” Clark says.

She says to picture a kindergartener who attended preschool remotely during the pandemic. In addition to academics, the school now has to teach that kindergartener how to walk in hallways, say hello to friends and go to the bathroom in a school setting.

On Feb. 8, the District 61 Board of Education voted in Clark as the new superintendent. Her three-year contract began the next day.

Clark says that academic and behavioral support will be her top priorities in her first days as superintendent.

Listen below to Clark describe how she plans to handle staff shortages and opportunity gaps in District 61.

A background in special education

Clark first started teaching 30 years ago as a special education aide.

Since then, she has moved up the ranks from teacher to principal to – most recently — assistant superintendent in Decatur Public Schools.

Clark says her early days still shape her philosophy that schools should individualize teaching for each student, no matter their label.

“You have a lot of great kids out there with special needs. They’re very bright, very talented and it’s overlooked. They’re no different. They just have a different way of learning, but we are all able to learn and to succeed. So, that is what I think I can bring to the table,” Clark says.

A sudden, internal hire

Clark was not one of the two finalists picked through a nationwide search for candidates. She applied as an internal candidate after one finalist struggled to get Illinois certification and the Board of Education remained divided on the other.

Clark says others encouraged her to apply for the promotion.

“I’ve had a lot of people approach me to say, ‘I think you’d be a good fit.’ I have a lot of relationships in the district, and since it was looking kind of iffy in the end, I thought I’d throw my hat in to see,” Clark says.

Since August 2021, Clark has filled an assistant superintendent role at District 61. She has a PhD in education from Lindenwood University.

Decatur Public Schools will not pay the full consulting fee to Hazard, Young, Attea and Associates, the firm that found the two other candidates, according to a statement from the district. District 61 will only pay out 75 percent of the fee, or about $19,000.

Clark herself will earn $206,000 during her first full year as superintendent of District 61. Her contract covers three years.

The last superintendent, Paul Fregeau, left Decatur in June 2021 to take a job in another district. Retired administrator Bobbi Williams has filled in as interim superintendent since then and is now helping Clark transition into the role. 

Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media. Follow her on Twitter @amihatt.

Picture of Emily Hays

Emily Hays

Emily Hays started at WILL in October 2021 after three-plus years in local newsrooms in Virginia and Connecticut. She has won state awards for her housing coverage at Charlottesville Tomorrow and her education reporting at the New Haven Independent. Emily graduated from Yale University where she majored in History and South Asian Studies.

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