Award-winning teamwork defines Riverdale Preschool Center in Rock Falls

Preschool teacher Cara Mitchell reads with a young lady at Riverdale School in Rock Falls Friday, April 14, 2023.

ROCK FALLS – Teaching during the COVID-19 pandemic likely will prove to be the most challenging professional hurdle for any educator to overcome.

Teaching during a pandemic and also managing to raise your school performance to an award-winning level is nothing short of phenomenal.

That’s the gold standard achieved by the staff and five classroom teachers at Riverdale Preschool Center in Rock Falls, which was recognized with a Gold Circle of Quality award from the Illinois State Board of Education and ExcelRate Illinois, a program that provides guidelines and goals for early childhood education providers.

Every two to three years, as part of the state’s Preschool for All requirements, the ISBE visits a school and rates its programs in a variety of areas. Riverdale’s turn came in 2021.

What the ISBE determined is that the center’s five teachers – Janelle Dykstra, Jennie Popejoy, Kristin Jagitsch, Cara Mitchell and Wendy Shiaras, all of whom still are teaching there – along with the center’s paraprofessionals and district administrators all managed to set and reach goals that allowed them to excel in almost three dozen areas, Principal Chelese Palmer said.

“As a staff, we went through each page of the 35 rating scales to discuss what level we thought we were at (one, three, five or seven), then focused on what practices we needed to implement or improve to raise the score to a seven, the ‘Excellent’ category,” Palmer said. “We improved in all the goals we set for ourselves,”

Those rating areas include everything from how the center screens incoming students to how it cares for its homeless students and those with special educational needs, and from parent involvement and collaboration with the community to the quality of snacks offered. No aspect of the programming is overlooked.

We believe that your child’s uniquenesses and interests should play a part in their learning. Whether it be learning about community helpers, farm animals, transportation or the weather, our teachers plan lessons that follow Illinois Early Learning Standards guided by Creative Curriculum to make choices that match student needs.”

—  From Riverdale Preschool Center's website,

Dykstra, the only staff member to experience a monitoring visit, helped her fellow teachers become familiar with best practices and scoring procedures, while Tara Kristoff, the assistant superintendent of teaching and learning, helped establish a research-based curriculum, Palmer said.

It’s a team effort that really paid off, to the benefit of the preschoolers.

“The Riverdale staff puts in a lot of hard work and shows dedication to ensure we provide the best possible education for our students,” Popejoy said. “We continually work on updating our classrooms to meet our students’ needs and implement Creative Curriculum to fidelity. I am incredibly proud that we earned the gold ExcelRate award and to be a part of Riverdale Preschool Center.”

Riverdale, which is part of District 13, was established about a dozen years ago to provide a central location for all of the city’s youngest students to get a strong educational foundation.

“I am also incredibly proud of our staff for committing to hard work and staying in growth mode,” said Palmer, who’s been with the center for seven years. “The students’ cognitive and social-emotional skills are proof of their success.”

The Gold Circle of Quality isn’t a monetary award – it comes with bragging rights only. But for Palmer and her crew, it signifies much more than money can buy.

“The greatest reward is seeing our children and families engage in the fun of learning,” Palmer said.

For enrollment information for a Rock Falls child who is 3 or 4, call Riverdale Preschool Center at 815-625-5280.

Kathleen Schultz

Kathleen A. Schultz

Kathleen Schultz is a Sterling native with 40 years of reporting and editing experience in Arizona, California, Montana and Illinois.