Four CCSD21 educators among ISBE’s honorees for extraordinary contributions to education

February 23, 2024

Topic: Updates

Brenda Theisen, Abby Pillow and Jaime Steineke, Educational Life Skills Program teachers at London Middle School, and Jeremy Holtmeier, school psychologist at Tarkington Elementary School, each received an Award of Special Recognition from the Illinois State Board of Education’s Those Who Excel program


Four educators in Community Consolidated School District 21 were among the Illinois State Board of Education’s 2024 recipients for the Those Who Excel & Teacher of the Year program.

The program honors educators who have made significant contributions to Illinois’ public and nonpublic elementary and secondary schools. Jeremy Holtmeier, school psychologist at Tarkington Elementary School; and Abby Pillow, Jaime Steinike and Brenda Theisen, Educational Life Skills Program teachers at London Middle School, each received an Award of Special Recognition.

“It was nice to be recognized for all the hard work that we have put in over the years,” Pillow said. “I think we work really well as a team, we bring a lot of perspectives to the table and our skills really complement one another, so it was nice that we could get this award together.”

Steinike agreed with the sentiments, adding it was “wonderful to receive the award with people who are like-minded in what we want for the growth of our kids…really focusing on our functional performance and helping our kids make as much progress as they can.”

London Principal Anastasia Netzel commended Pillow, Steinike and Theisen for rebuilding the ELSP program since the COVID-19 pandemic: “Over the last two years, these three exceptional teachers have gone above and beyond to cultivate an inclusive and nurturing environment for the students in their program.”

Netzel noted that “support staff felt a shift in the amount of collaboration and involvement through their work” with Pillow, and students were more regulated and open to new experiences. 

Theisen, meanwhile, “really took a lot of pride in prioritizing experiences for our students both through community-based trips as well as around the school, including cultivating a London garden for growing vegetables.”

Lastly, Netzel wrote that Steinike “has brought so much knowledge, positive relationships with students, staff and families, as well as an overall kindness and calmness to London.”

Pillow noted that the rebuilding process was a “shift in focus,” working hard to do more work in the community and tying the bulk of their academic instruction to that specific work.

For example, Theisen prioritized experiences for the ELSP students both through community-based trips and around the school, including cultivating a garden to grow vegetables. She noted that the kids tended to the vegetables all year before donating them, and a field trip to a local grocery store to see those vegetables “was a great community connection for them.”

“We had maybe 10-12 field trips last year, and I think just getting them back in the community is helping,” Theisen adds. “During the pandemic, there were no field trips and there was a lot of separation. So we have just been working on them being together and being back in the community.”

Dr. Joe Arduino, principal of Tarkington, wrote in his recommendation of Holtmeier that “in my over 30 years of education, it is difficult to think of another professional who has made as many contributions as he has in a school setting.” 

“He has a unique way of making parents feel comfortable and ensuring that they are true members of the decision-making team,” Dr. Arduino added. “He is calm, professional, thorough and sensitive during these [individualized education program] meetings. His mannerisms as the facilitator sets the tone for the meeting and provides a model for the entire team.”

For his part, Holtmeier said the recognition was “a little bit awkward but nice to hear.”

“This award represents all the work that I do with my team,” he added, crediting the many levels of professionals he works alongside, from teachers’ aides all the way to district administrators.

Holtmeier said it has always been his goal to make special education understandable for the parents: “I’ll go to however many of these meetings a year, while parents only go to them once. Even if they go 2-3 years in a row, it’s always going to be kind of new for them. So I go out of my way to make sure they understand why their kids are getting help, what the help may look like, and who is working for them. If the parents walk out of the meeting knowing that, I feel comfortable that I’ve done my job.”

ISBE will celebrate the honorees during a banquet this May in Bloomington-Normal.