WAUKEGAN, Ill. — Shanie Keelean is a hard-driving school administrator whose mission is to improve schools and student performance.
Last year, Waukegan Public Schools, where Keelean is an assistant superintendent, moved 71 percent of their schools to “commendable‘ status.
“I love any challenge,‘ Keelean said. “My thing is — we are going to come in and we are going to be the best school in the district.‘
Earlier this week, the 1990 Cadillac High School graduate spoke at the National Summit for Principal Supervisors. Her topic was “coaching principals to high student achievement.‘ Her ability to improve student performance became evident during her first years as a math and physical education teacher and coach in Chicago elementary schools. Since then, she has become a highly sought-after administrator who can change a school’s climate from one of despair to high achievement.
“Our kids have to be the best in the city ... that’s what we are going to shoot for and our kids deserve that,‘ she said.
Dedication to students
Keelean talks fast and with passion when discussing her philosophy of education.
“I lost months of education,‘ she said about her third grade year at Kenwood Elementary. “We had a substitute teacher and I started being a different kid because I wasn’t challenged. Every kid comes every day wanting to be their best. Every teacher and administrator does too. That’s how I operate, even in the least performing school in the district. My belief system is that I can do it. I can help the teachers and the parents get there. You have to shift everybody at that point.‘
Keelean learned her work ethic from her parents. Gene Keelean is a Vietnam veteran who worked as a corrections officer and Mary Jo operated an adult foster care and a beauty shop from their home.
“I was raised in a middle class home,‘ she said. “Cadillac gave me opportunities in sports, indoor and outdoor activities ... to become well-rounded through social interactions with friends and their families.‘
Keelean’s gratitude for the blessings of small town life has created a dedication to the less fortunate.
“In my career I’ve been concerned about those not so fortunate,‘ she said. “It’s a passion to me … you don’t leave anybody behind.‘
After graduating from college, Keelean moved to Chicago and worked as a gymnastics supervisor with the Chicago Park District, where she built winning teams, including first place wins in USA Gymnastics competitions. She built her teams by following the example of her CHS gymnastics coach, Nancy Vollmar, whom she credits with getting her started in coaching.
“I remember Shanie well,‘ said Vollmar. “She was highly competitive and a hard worker. Back then we ended up recruiting kids that had never been in athletics before ... didn’t know they had talent. In sports, you create a team concept and we don’t let each other fall.‘
In addition, Keelean learned about gutsy, fearless determination in a gym on the Southside of Chicago, where she trained as a boxer. In the 1998 U.S. National Championships, she fought Ann Wolfe in the quarter finals. Wolfe is known as “the hardest puncher and best fighter in the history of women’s boxing.‘
“It was risky, a lot of what I did,‘ she said. “I boxed in many of the parks and fought in the Golden Gloves. I won in the end. It was gritty, some of the boxing places in Chicago (are) places you see things outside you don’t need to see … That was all about me learning about life that I didn’t grow up with in Cadillac. I made myself learn everything I could possibly learn.‘
“No matter how hard you train, you can be out cold in a second,‘ she added. “But you to get back up and fight harder. Life is the same, we get knocked down but we must get up to fight another day.‘
Keelean earned two master’s degrees in education, one in curriculum and instruction from Loyola University. She taught in Chicago Public Schools for 11 years. While teaching, she coached to engage students in “something positive.‘
“I coached everything possible,‘ she said. “I would get everybody I could to be on the team so students would have outlets and opportunity. I went into leadership because so many of my students did not even think about college as an option … not meeting the needs of any child is just not OK.‘
Keelean is married. She and her husband have three children.