Impacting Generations Through Education
Born to a family of farmers in Tennessee and raised in small-town Georgia, Dr. Donna S. Leak (MA EA ‘ 95) was encouraged by a teacher to find her passion and follow it. She became a teacher herself, a job that gave her the chance to inspire others. But when she found herself in charge of a high school math department at the age of 25, Leak realized that becoming an educational administrator would enable her to extend her reach even further.
“It’s not about me, it’s about the students. If I can impact teachers across Illinois, the lives of many, many young people will be better for it, and that’s an impact that can last for generations,” said Leak, Superintendent of Sauk Village School District 168. In 2019, she was appointed Vice Chairman of the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE), expanding her reach immeasurably.
Describe your current professional role.
The role of a public school superintendent is like a CEO. I’m in charge of day-to-day management. I have fiduciary responsibilities. And since it’s a school district, it’s all about education, which means approving curriculum, staff, and resources. I’m here in service to Sauk Village to ensure that every family gets what they need regardless of resources. As vice chair of the ISBE, I work on those issues across the state.
How did you get into this line of work?
I never intended to go into administration. I was teaching math at Homewood-Flossmoor High School and I loved it. When the department chairman took an administrative job, I put my name in because I wanted a chance to tell what I thought we needed across the department, not just in my classroom. And they gave me the job. I was 25 years old!
Why did you choose Governors State University?
When I became department chair, I was given 18 months to get my administrative license. Initially I chose GSU because of the proximity, but it turned out to be one of the best and most practical programs I could have found. When you’re working, it’s a great opportunity to take classes at night and on weekends. Also, GSU had many professors who were practicing administrators in South Cook County, or who would bring in professionals to speak to us. They did a great job of not just teaching theory but also practicality.
What role did GSU play in your success?
It turned out there were a lot of projects I did at GSU that I could use in real time, because they mirrored what I had to do at work. Every course, every project, every thesis I wrote was directly connected to my job. And when I went on to get my Ph.D., I was extremely well prepared. I walked right into it.
What are you most proud of when you look back at your GSU experience?
I was in my mid-20s when I went to GSU, and that experience really prepared me to take on a leadership role with confidence and maturity that you wouldn’t expect from a 26-year-old. When I was done with my master’s degree, I was able to immediately start a Ph.D. program. That’s because I had learned how to prioritize and to make good decisions. When I left H-F, the school had just won another Blue Ribbon award.
What’s next for you professionally?
I love what I’m doing now. As the Vice Chairman on the Illinois Board of Education, it’s the perfect spot to make decisions that will benefit the entire state of Illinois. And at District 168, I’m building up Sauk Village to become a destination for families.
What advice would you share with current GSU students?
The advice I got from my mentor, former H-F Superintendent Laura Murray: Figure out what you love to do, and match it with your everyday life. If you figure it out and connect it with your education, it can put you on your path. Life is fleeting! Persevere. Stick it out. Stay true to who you are. It’s so, so worth it.