Donna Nylander says she plans on “re-inventing” herself when she retires as principal of the Valley View Early Childhood Center at the end of this school year.
But truthfully, it sounds like one of the state’s foremost experts on early childhood education will continue along the same path she’s carved since she first taught pre-school and primary grade children in South Holland more than 30 years ago.
“I’ve really been blessed with the opportunities I’ve had,” Nylander said.
Among those opportunities was a chance to work for the Illinois State Board of Education as a Resource Specialist for teachers who taught children birth-third grade. for seven years, a position that helped her gain infinitely valuable knowledge that has served as the cornerstone of her career.
“I like to say first I was regular, then I was special,” she said, referring to her career teaching general education students then becoming a special education expert .
After studying in Italy, she took a position as principal of a special education coop in the Park Forest area and then moved west to Naperville where she became assistant principal, then principal of the 900-child District 204 Indian Prairie Children Preschool, a position she held for 10 years.
By the time Valley View opened its Early Childhood Center in 2005, Nylander was gaining statewide notoriety for her expertise in the preschool arena, particularly in the area of including students with special needs with their general education peers. Educators sought her advice, and wanted her for their trainings and focus groups.
“But I was ready for a change. I needed a challenge,” she said. “I love to develop and design programs. I wanted to do something innovative. I wanted to get my hands around a smaller center where I could be more connected to kids and families.”
When the VVECC principal retired a year later, Nylander jumped at the chance to be her successor.
"I loved the people. I felt really at home,” she said as she recalled interviewing for the job in early 2006. “They talked about being a family. It just felt right.”
And, she adds, it has continued to feel right ever since.
“The respect and support I get from this district has never waned. I’ve been able to do this great work because they trusted me and they listened to me…” she said, quickly adding “…And because I have had awesome teacher leaders.”
Nylander has always kept VVECC on the cutting edge thanks to her eagerness to view first-hand “every best practice I could find.” She has presented at dozens of local, state and national conferences, won numerous awards and is an influential member of Gov. Pat Quinn’s Early Learning Council. She also helped write state standards for early childhood education.
"I can’t imagine stopping when I retire,” she said. “I hope to be able to continue those relationships at the local, state and national level. When I think about this part of my career ending, I’m not sad, there are great people here to continue the excellent program. But I do find myself imaging the possibilities of things that still need to be accomplished. I’m hopeful something will come up that will keep me advocating for young children and their families.”
In the meantime, for the remainder of this school year, Nylander’s “nurturing” manner will permeate the walls of the VVECC.
As the sign over the entrance to VVECC says: “People don’t care what you know, until they know you care.”
Donna Nylander is someone who cares.