BOURBONNAIS — One of the factors that stood out most to the Bourbonnais Elementary School Board about Adam Ehrman as a candidate for superintendent was his enthusiasm, according to Board President Rob Rodewald.
“We were excited about his excitement for the job,” Rodewald said, recalling the hiring process in January. “Those I think were the big things, his enthusiasm for it and helping to make sure that our kids move from where they are to even better.”
Between closing out the 2019-2020 school year at New Berlin School District and preparing to start the 2020-2021 school year with Bourbonnais Elementary, Ehrman sat down for an interview with the Daily Journal to discuss the transition.
“I’m trying to land one plane while I’m trying to board another plane,” he said.
Though life is admittedly hectic at the moment, Ehrman’s enthusiasm for education persists.
“For me, the position has changed, going from being a student teacher to being a teacher to principal to superintendent, but it’s all been [about] kids and trying to make an educational organization better,” he said. “I just get different roles to play at times.”
Ehrman assumes his position July 1. He replaces Dan Hollowell, former superintendent from 2013 until last year when he resigned after a sexual harassment complaint was filed against him.
In January, the board unanimously approved a five-year contract with Ehrman and a starting salary of $155,000. He was selected from a pool of about 52 applicants.
Margaret Longo, retired superintendent of Forest Ridge School District in Oak Forest, has been serving as interim superintendent for Bourbonnais Elementary since last July.
Before she was hired, Jim Duggan, the district’s director of instruction, served as interim superintendent and was then assistant superintendent under Longo.
Ehrman grew up in Aroma Park and is moving back to the area with his wife, Lacy Ehrman, who will be teaching third grade at Bradley West, and their daughters, Kate and Ellen, who will be attending Liberty Intermediate and Bourbonnais Upper Grade Center, respectively.
Ehrman is a graduate of Bishop McNamara Catholic School. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in educational administration from Eastern Illinois University, his Chief School Business Official endorsement from the University of Illinois in Springfield and his Doctorate in Educational Leadership from Western Illinois University.
He taught at St. Anne Grade School and worked as a principal and superintendent in the village of Franklin, near Springfield, before his eight-year stint as superintendent in New Berlin.
Ehrman’s mother was a teacher for Herscher School District, but he always thought he would follow in his father’s footsteps and work in a chemical lab until he realized his true calling while attending Eastern.
“As much as I tried to hide what I really was, which was somebody who loves learning and loves being around people, the two things that make up an educator, it kind of just clicked one day,” he said.
Ehrman’s personal hobbies developed as a means of de-stressing from work; after he discovered that the stress of being a superintendent was having negative health effects, he began running, biking and swimming, which led him to take on triathlons and an Iron Man competition.
Leaving New Berlin
Ehrman recalled getting a sense things were about to drastically change in the weeks before schools shut down due to the COVID-19 pandemic in mid March.
“In my entire, not just professional career, my entire lifetime as being even a student, that never happened, ever,” he said. “Trying to get people to fathom that we could leave school and then we could not come back for the rest of the year and what would that actually look like, that was an unreal moment in education.”
He also remembered how everyone’s desire to know what was going on and what would happen next conflicted with rapidly evolving orders from the state.
At the tail end of one week, Ehrman was meeting with his school board and discussing the still foreign concept of social distancing, and by the following Tuesday, schools were ordered to begin remote learning.
“It went from an impossible reality to the new norm in a matter of 48 hours, all the while we are trying to feed students and educate students,” he said.
Being a partially rural school district, New Berlin had issues ensuring all students had internet access. Though students were given devices, cell service in some areas was insufficient to run hot spots. The district ended up having 95 percent of students on e-learning and 5 percent doing hard-copy assignments.
In October, My Journal Courier reported that the teachers union in New Berlin presented its school board with a vote of no confidence in Ehrman. The union asked for Ehrman’s resignation due to claims that he lacked respect for the collective bargaining process, among other complaints. However, the school board maintained its confidence in Ehrman’s leadership.
Ehrman recalled tough negotiations and tense dynamics between the union and district leadership but said he is hopeful that resolutions will take place in the future.
Moving forward, Ehrman said he is entering his new position with emphasis on listening and building bridges.
“Some of the things that need to be in place to have a successful relationship with all parties is being able to come together in groups and have conversations,” he said. “We want to make sure the variables for a rocky relationship are alleviated. We want to have people come to the table and talk about issues.”
Starting in Bourbonnais
Rodewald said that Longo and board members have been in contact with Ehrman leading up to his transition to get him up to speed on the district’s projects and budgeting process so he can hit the ground running July 1.
Rodewald said one of the biggest challenges he foresees Ehrman will face as superintendent will be navigating how the pandemic will affect the district’s funding.
“Not only is the state taking a huge hit [because of the pandemic], then it’s going to transfer to less money going to schools, so we don’t know what our budget is going to look like,” Rodewald said. “It’s going to be a difficult start; it’s a strange time for him to be starting a new job.”
Ehrman attended the recent Bourbonnais Elementary school board meeting where administrators reviewed tentative plans for next school year, including plans to socially distance students in classrooms, modify drop-off and pick-up procedures and screen students and staff who feel sick.
Other ideas include delaying the start of the school year until after Labor Day and implementing staggered start times in order to space students out on buses.
Erhman said that while plans are fluid, he is optimistic that Illinois will enter Phase 4 soon and in-person instruction will be feasible.
“I’m hopeful we will be able to do school in a manner that looks and resembles and feels like school, not just for our students, but for our parents,” he said.
He emphasized the importance of building teacher-student relationships at the start of a school year in order to keep students engaged in the long run.
“Hopefully, we are back at school and those relationships can be built,” he said. “We also have to be positioned where if something happens and we have to go into remote learning again, we are ready to go.”
The district is looking into using face shields for when teachers have to work in close proximity with students and a technology called Swivl that tracks and records a teacher’s movement in the classroom for students to view lessons from home.
“I do believe that we go into this with an understanding that this is probably an impossible task, but let’s see how much we can make possible in the process,” Ehrman said.