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Elgin schools chief named new state superintendent

Photo courtesy of the Illinois State Board of Education

For Tony Sanders, becoming state superintendent was a natural career progression and a “longtime dream.”

The Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) announced Monday that Sanders will take over for State Superintendent Carmen Ayala. Ayala was first appointed to the position in 2019 and retired on Monday.

Sanders will assume the role in late February, with ISBE Deputy Education Officer Krish Mohip serving in the interim.

“Dr. Sanders’ breadth of experience as superintendent of School District U-46 and his entire background have prepared him to take on this role,” Illinois Governor J.B. Pritzker said in a statement. “His focus on innovation, social emotional development and academic excellence make him an extraordinary pick.”

Sanders has served as superintendent of District U-46, the second largest district in Illinois, since 2014 and said this job was the only one he’d consider leaving the district for.

During his time with U-46, he’s overseen implementation of the dual credits program with Elgin Community College and full-day kindergarten. He also oversaw an expansion of the dual language program and established the DREAM Academy, an alternative high school which aims to reduce expulsions by providing a new learning environment for students.

Sanders said many of his priorities will remain the same as he steps into his new position.

“I'm looking forward,” he said, “to taking what I've learned serving 37,000 students and scaling that up to 2 million students.”

He hopes to see programs utilized in his district, such as the dual-language program and the career pathways program which offers high school students the opportunity to take classes associated with careers such as nursing and engineering, implemented across the state.

Sanders said the pandemic brought forth both positives and negatives for education in Illinois. It “revealed the best of us” with support for teachers and other school employees, as well as implementing new technologies which have improved learning in the classroom.

But it also created a learning gap and Sanders said improving student proficiency will be a top priority for the state going forward.

In October ISBE released the Illinois Report Card, which showed declines in the percentage of students who meet or exceed standards in both math and English language arts proficiency from 2019.

“We need to get back to focusing again on what are the standards that students need to meet in order to be successful on any state assessment – and in life,” Sanders said. “And make sure that teachers have the tools necessary to teach to those standards at high levels.”

With teacher shortages becoming a top issue on the national stage, Sanders said that in District U-46 they implemented “Horizons4U”, a program which offered tuition reimbursement for individuals who wanted to go back to school to become a teacher or social worker.

This is a program he would like to replicate on the state level.

He said one of the biggest lessons he will carry over is to be connected with peers, including the governor’s office, local businesses, unions and the Department of Children and Family Services.

“We can't be an isolated agency,” Sanders said. “We have to work together with others for the betterment of kids.”

Sanders said serving as superintendent in a local school district has allowed him to see the impact state policies have on schools and students. He said this has prepared him to take over the role and really consider how to best help schools, and students, in Illinois.