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. The Community Foundation partners with the DeKalb County Regional Office of Education to honor the esteemed education profession and those in the field whom their peers have nominated as exhibiting excellence.

"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 students to love learning. 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 community nominations is November 30 each year. 

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.

2024 Excellence In Education Award Recipients

Pre-K – 5th Grade Teacher

Katie Claypool, Third Grade Teacher, Hinckley-Big Rock Elementary School - Hinckley-Big Rock CUSD #429

Katie Claypool has worked in the field of education for 12 years, with all of them being in Hinckley-Big Rock. She earned a bachelor's in Spanish and elementary education and her master's from Aurora University in bilingual curriculum and instruction. In her district, Katie has provided professional development, served on the Collective Bargaining team, led the Sunshine Committee, and mentored new teachers. She volunteers at the Big Rock Car Show, the Junior Fair Committee, and various afterschool events. In the school, Katie focuses on building meaningful relationships and motivating others.

6th – 8th Grade Teacher

Katherine Katz, Art Teacher, Sycamore Middle School - Sycamore CUSD #427

Katherine Katz earned her bachelor's in art education from Northern Illinois University. She earned her master's in curriculum and instruction from the American College of Education. She has been an art teacher for 13 years and spent eight of those years in Sycamore. Katherine has a variety of professional experiences, including Americorps in Iowa and teaching art in Serena and Batavia, Illinois. She has worked to provide student opportunities such as the Artist of the Week project, Family Art Night, and Summer Art Camp. In the community, Katherine's involvement includes the Ellwood House Museum, Goodfellows, Cloverbuds 4-H, and the Bookcase project. She is dedicated to the power of art to transform lives, foster inclusivity, and contribute to mental health.

9th – 12th Grade Teacher

Susan Clark, Multilingual Coordinator & Teacher, Hinckley-Big Rock CUSD #429

Susan Clark has worked in education for 26 years after earning her bachelor's in elementary education from Humboldt State University. She earned her master's as a reading specialist and an endorsement in English as a second language from Olivet Nazarene University. She led the district in implementing its all-day kindergarten program and has continued to serve by mentoring new teachers and sponsoring the Spanish Club. Susan is involved with PEO, an international women's organization, and the cornerstone of her community engagement, the Hinckley First United Methodist Church. Susan advocates for multilingual students and is committed to providing them a safe place of belonging and an exciting future.

Support Staff

Susan Hughes, Principal’s Secretary, Southeast Elementary School - Sycamore CUSD #427

Susan Hughes has served students for 26 years, all in Sycamore. She also attended Sycamore School District and has been a Sycamore Spartan for most of her life. Susan considers the staff at Southeast Elementary School to be her second family, and she lives by her grandfather’s sentiment that “family was the best part of life.” At school, Susan coordinated the implementation of Frontline for substitute teachers and staff absences and Infinite Campus for student profiles. She contributes to the Spartan Food Pantry and her church. Susan strives to make the office a place where students, staff, and parents are always welcome: she helps families access resources and enjoys listening to students read to her.


Caitlin Benes, Principal, Hiawatha Elementary School - Hiawatha CUSD #426

Caitlin Benes has been the Hiawatha Elementary School principal for six years. Her bachelor’s is in organizational business management, and her two master’s are in cross-categorical special education and school leadership. Caitlin has emphasized the importance of professional development at the school, district, and county levels. She engages with the community through many avenues, including the Chamber of Commerce and the Kirkland Public Library. Caitlin has navigated new curricula, master schedules, and the pandemic. Most recently, she helped lead Hiawatha Elementary School to its National Blue Ribbon Award in 2023. Caitlin is proud of this award because it demonstrates the closing of an achievement gap and a learning environment with high expectations.

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.