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In an age where public education is tasked to produce high caliber students with limited resources educators often carry the weight of making this model succeed.

Illinois principal and University of Wisconsin Oshkosh alumna, Michelle Willis ‘88, has not only readily accepted this challenge but has conquered it multiple times throughout her career.

After graduating with a degree in economics and working in the business field, Willis realized her passion was teaching others. She started her career in education in 1993 and worked her way up from a classroom teacher to reading specialist and principal.

Known as a “turnabout specialist,” Willis has a proven track record of transforming under-performing schools and leading them off probation through the use of data-driven instruction and effective professional development.


Under Willis’ leadership, Gillespie Tech Elementary School has risen to the highest ranks within Chicago, receiving numerous academic and competition awards over the past six years. They include the 2011 State of Illinois School Improvement Award, the 2012 CPS Technology Innovation Award and the 2013 and 2014 CPS Principal Achievement Award for Outstanding Reading and Math growth. Success is additionally illustrated through the 5 percent increase in student and teacher attendance and an 80 percent decrease in discipline referrals.

Through grants, partnerships and strategic budgeting, Willis has increased student access to technology. Students are benefitting from more than $100,000 in grant-funded technological enhancements and innovation.

Every classroom is outfitted with a SMART Board and there are iPad or Chromebook carts at each grade level. The school also has two state-of-the-art computer labs.

Gillespie Tech Elementary is one of 300 schools worldwide and the only Chicago school to have the SMART Showcase School distinction (for its extensive SMART board use.)

LaTanya McDade, chief officer of teaching and learning within Chicago Public Schools, has seen Willis’ work first-hand.

“Dr. Willis demonstrates visionary leadership and strength when building staff capacity and developing of instructional strategies for a diverse student population,” she said. “Our students have developed the technical skills to be prepared for college and career-ready to compete in a global society.”

Willis has been recognized as 2015 Educator of the Year—presented by the National Council for Negro Women as well as 2017 Illinois Elementary Principal of the Year. In addition to her work within the schools, Willis has been appointed to a number of councils and committees focused on education. Her dedication to the students often extends beyond the work day as she volunteers with the Glass Slipper Projects, The Links, Inc. and the Monarch Awards Foundation.

“Volunteerism and community service are a satisfying aspect of my life—personally and professionally,” Willis said. “I enjoy instilling the importance of community service, giving back and being a productive member of society within my students. My passion for service was ignited at UWO through my participation in student organizations and a variety of altruistic interests. That foundation began at UWO and has led to my success.”


Willis will be among those honored at UWO’s Alumni Awards Celebration on Friday, Oct. 6, at the Alumni Welcome and Conference Center. The cost is $30 per person and includes dinner. For more information or to RSVP for the event, please call (920) 424-3449 or send an email to

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