Meridian school superintendent named state’s best

PJ Caposey a leading voice for education during the COVID-19 pandemic

PJ Caposey, superintendent of Meridian Community Unit School District 223, left, appears on stage with Illinois Association of School Administrators President Kevin Blankenship. Caposey was named 2023 Superintendent of the Year.

STILLMAN VALLEY – When PJ Caposey arrived at Meridian in 2013 as its new superintendent, the district didn’t have working email.

Wifi is now ubiquitous in the district, even in student homes.

That was just part of the transformation that has taken place in the Ogle County school district, leading to Caposey being selected by an independent panel as the state’s best superintendent.

The award by the Illinois Association of School Administrators was made Saturday during the Joint Annual Conference of educators taking place this weekend at three major hotels in the city’s downtown.

Caposey confessed that when he learned about the award, he was so “flooded with emotion” he couldn’t speak, even to his wife.

“The emotion was borne out of the immense gratitude I have for the Meridian 223 community, particularly our board of education and leadership team, and a deep recognition of the journey that we have been on together,” Caposey said in acceptance. “I am unabashedly proud of the work we have done, and the turnaround we have created for the kids and community that we serve. I am acutely aware that I have the privilege of receiving this award based on the incredibly hard work of everyone in, and around, our wonderful district.”

PJ Caposey, superintendent of Meridian schools in Ogle County, holds the award for the state's top superintendent of the year.

It was given in recognition of the gains students have made at Meridian since Caposey was hired in 2013 and his emergence on the national stage as a presenter and advocate for the use of technology in education.

According to Illinois Report Card data released in October, Meridian students have a 94% attendance rate and an 89% graduation rate. In three of the past four school years the graduation rate was above 90%, peaking at 97% in 2018.

Meridian has 1,400 students and operates a grade school in Monroe Center, and an elementary, junior high and high school in Stillman Valley. All four schools were rated as commendable by the Illinois State Board of Education in October.

According to the award criteria, the district has recovered from a financial crisis, addressed limitations in technology and its outdated curriculum, especially in K-5 English language arts and math. New teaching strategies were implemented. High turnover among staff was an early woe; in 2022 staff retention was at 92.4%

“Every once and a while you get to be a part of something special,” said John Smith, president of the board of education at Meridian. “What we have been able to accomplish in Meridian over the past decade, and the relationships we have been able to build, is something unlike I had ever experienced before.”

The road back included passage of two voter referendums to put the district on more solid financial footing. Among the initiatives were a mentoring program for ninth-graders to keep them on track to graduate, greater availability of AP courses, greater student access to eighth-grade algebra and advanced coursework starting with fifth grade.

In the last school year, more than 85% graduates earned college credit during the school year. More than one-third graduated with a full semester of college credits.

The district created the position of college and career coordinator and improved social-emotional support for students with its Leader in Me program that expanded counseling and promoted diversity, equity and inclusion.

“The turnaround PJ has facilitated in Meridian 223 is a shining example of why strong leadership matters,” said Brent Clark, executive director of the association. “The changes he’s made, the programs he’s implemented and the culture he’s built has drastically improved the lives of students. Accomplishing those feats takes a uniquely talented person, and PJ is unquestionably one of the most expressive leaders and gifted communicators I have ever met.”

Caposey’s footprint as a leading educator is growing.

He is the author of eight books and published more than 50 blogs or articles. He is sought-after as a keynote speaker and had a TEDx Talk.

He had led more than 100 workshops in 15 states. He teaches at two universities and leads the Illinois Principals Association’s building leaders cohort. He provides coaching to about 10 clients a year.

Meridian’s approach to curtail learning loss, the importance of technology within the schools and efforts to keep schools open during the COVID-19 pandemic led him to appearing in news segments on National Public Radio, CBS and The Washington Post.

The Illinois Association of School Administrators is the state’s premier advocacy organization for school administrators, and has about 1,750 members.

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Troy Taylor

Troy E. Taylor

Was named editor for and the Gazette and Telegraph in 2021. An Illinois native, he has been a reporter or editor in daily newspapers since 1989.