Excellence in Education Awards

The annual Excellence in Education Awards honor exceptional teachers, administrators, and support staff in DeKalb County. Funding for the awards is made possible through the generosity of Yvonne Johnson. Yvonne was a retired elementary school teacher for the Sycamore School District. In 1999, she created the DeKalb County Excellence in Education Award Fund at the DeKalb County Community Foundation. The Fund supports the annual awards and recognizes those making a positive difference in our schools and education professionals.

"Excellence in Education emphasizes the great work done in the schools and brings it forward to residents of DeKalb County. Besides being in a classroom, educators work in the community, their church, and groups that value their work. When starting the Fund, surrounding counties recognized educators, but not DeKalb County. I wanted DeKalb County educators to feel this appreciation. This recognition includes elementary school teachers, middle school teachers, high school teachers, support staff, and administrators."

Yvonne Johnson

Nominations are a joint effort from teachers, administrators, and the community. The awards recognize respected professionals who inspire the love of learning in students. In addition, these admired individuals play an active role in their schools and communities. Award winners receive $1,000 and public recognition during an awards ceremony and reception. The deadline for 2024 community nominations is November 30, 2023. 

Every district in DeKalb County is eligible to nominate a person for each of the following areas:

  • Pre-K – 5th Grade Teacher
  • 6th – 8th Grade Teacher
  • 9th – 12th Grade Teacher
  • Support Staff (e.g., secretaries, classroom aides, custodians, food service, bus drivers, and maintenance)
  • Administration

For more information on the Excellence in Education Awards, please contact Community Foundation Grants Director Jolene Willis at 815-748-5383 or j.willis@dekalbccf.org.

2023 Excellence In Education Award Recipients

Pre-K – 5th Grade Teacher

Audrey Cook, Kindergarten Teacher, Kingston Elementary School - Genoa-Kingston CUSD #424

Audrey Cook earned her bachelor’s degree in special education from Northern Illinois University and her master’s degree in leadership from St. Xavier University. She continued her professional development by earning National Board certification. While teaching kindergarten for the past 21 years, she has also led the district wellness committee, served as association representative, and participated on the DeKalb County Collaborative for Young Children. She was also part of the founding group that created Kindergarten Readiness Toolkits. Ms. Cook volunteers at Genoa Days, summer camps, and young parent support groups. Her philanthropy extends to her church where she is a member of the Human Care committee.

6th – 8th Grade Teacher

Kathryn Michaels, 8th Grade English/Language Arts Teacher, Genoa-Kingston Middle School - Genoa-Kingston CUSD #424

Kathryn Michaels earned her bachelor’s degree in English from University of St. Francis and her master’s degree in education from Olivet Nazarene. She also achieved National Board certification. She found her “forever school” 22 years ago when she started in district 424. She loves being in a middle school when life can be challenging for students to navigate. Ms. Michaels serves the district in many ways including the Model Classroom Project, mentoring new teachers, co-directing the drama program, and serving on the Building Leadership Team. She volunteers at Tails Humane Society, the Northern Illinois Food Pantry, and the Buy Nothing Project for her neighborhood.

9th – 12th Grade Teacher

Tracey Sanderson, Agriculture Teacher, Hinckley-Big Rock High School - Hinckley-Big Rock CUSD #429

Tracey Sanderson holds degrees in agricultural education from the University of Wisconsin at Platteville, educational literacy/ESL from Northern Illinois University, and educational leadership from Aurora University. She is proud of her role in improving the school district’s welding, woodworking, and greenhouse lab spaces, implementing a new orchard, and improving the crop research plot. Her philanthropy extends internationally as she served in Kenya, Africa, with TechLit Africa this summer. Her contributions include Section 6 FFA, DeKalb County Ag in the Classroom, VALEES, and 4-H.

Tracey is also working with the Illinois Association of Vocational Agriculture Teachers (IAVAT), which in turn, is working jointly with the Illinois Science Teaching Association to create a year-long biology curriculum. The curriculum is aligned to the 3 dimensions of the Next Generation Science Standards utilizing the story lining teaching process and engaging students in figuring out agricultural phenomena and problems. Agricultural Biology is designed for freshmen and sophomores students interested in learning about food systems or the production, processing, distribution, and consumption of food products as well as the interactions of various aspects of food systems with the natural environment.

Support Staff

Sue Graham, Transportation Director - Sandwich CUSD #430

Sue Graham has worked in education for 17 years, 16 of those years have been in the Sandwich district. She obtained her bachelor’s degree in public accounting from Loyola University of Chicago. After a career in accounting and auditing, she took a part-time job as a bus driver which turned into her second career. Ms. Graham currently coordinates transportation for 800 students while handling the scheduling complications and bus driver shortages. Her volunteer work includes a devotion to CCT South, a program within Children’s Community Theatre. She especially enjoys recruiting students who need this creative outlet and helping students stretch into unexpected roles on the stage.


Jennifer Kern, Principal, W.W. Woodbury Elementary School - Sandwich CUSD #430

Jennifer Kern obtained her bachelor’s degree in elementary education from Aurora University and her master’s degree in administration from Illinois Benedictine. As an administrator, Ms. Kern prioritizes servant leadership, equity, creating a space of acceptance and understanding the needs of her school’s families. She is serving on several leadership teams for D430 including for multi-tiered systems of support, special education and early childhood. Ms. Kern is a Basics Ambassador for early childhood, seeing the value in early intervention. She contributes to the education field by working with VALEES and Waubonsee Community College. Her greatest professional pride is in building a school culture that is supportive and positive.

Past Excellence in Education Award Recipients

If education interests you, consider giving a gift to help us grow the DeKalb County Excellence in Education Endowment Fund. Your gift will allow further growth in recognizing those who go above and beyond in education to help others.

Donate to the DeKalb County Excellence in Education Award Fund >

To discuss your charitable interests or give back to the community by establishing a Fund, please contact Executive Director Dan Templin at 815-748-5383 or dan@dekalbccf.org.