They journeyed to Springfield as new teachers 35 years ago. Now, they are retiring

Queen Drake is retiring after 35 years with Springfield School District 186.

Queen Drake’s journey to Springfield turned on a panicked phone call to her friend, Iola Jackson.

Both graduates of Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi, in 1986, Drake and Jackson had filled out applications to teach in Springfield School District 186 during a spring recruiting fair at the college. Neither had any connections at that time to Springfield.

A couple of weeks later, Drake was contacted by then-human resources director Vivian Najim. Was Drake interested in an elementary school teaching position in Springfield?

Drake was, but there was a catch: Drake’s mother would only let her go to Springfield if Jackson went along with her.

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By that time, Jackson had already accepted a teaching position and had an orientation scheduled with the Memphis, Tennessee, public school system. Jackson had also been receiving calls from Najim about a position in Springfield.

That set off an excited call from Drake to Jackson explaining the situation.

"I said, ‘What? Really?’" said Jackson, with a laugh. "Queen really wanted to go (to Springfield). I had to call Memphis and tell them I declined and accepted a position in Springfield. I called Queen back and said, ‘I’ll go with you.’

"It was a real leap of faith."

Drake and Jackson came in together, and now they’re both retiring from the district, Drake as the director of Project SCOPE and Jackson as an assistant principal at Southeast High School.

They are among the 42 certified and 13 classified employees retiring from the district.

That also includes Kristine Gates, who spent all 17 years in District 186 as a sixth-grade science teacher after a career as intensive care unit nurse.

Vonda Jenkins is retiring after 34 years in the Ball-Chatham School District.

Among the other area teacher retirees is Vonda Jenkins, who spent all 34 years as a business teacher at Glenwood High School in the Ball-Chatham School District.

District 186 Superintendent Jennifer Gill said recently there wasn’t anything unusual about the number of retirees, and it was in line with previous years.

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Drake and Jackson, along with Gates, said their retirements were planned and not hastened by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Drake described her friendship with Jackson as "an unbreakable bond" that began at Rust College, a historically Black school founded right after the end of the Civil War.

The two took elementary education classes and pledged the Zeta Phi Beta sorority together.

"We’re still friends today," Drake said recently. "My children call her ‘aunt’ and her daughter is kind of like my goddaughter."

Drake, the youngest of 11 children who grew up in Holly Springs, said she only knew Springfield was the state capital when Edna Shanklin and Elizabeth Nelson, both principals in District 186, came to Rust College on a recruiting trip.

Jackson, who has spent the last 10 years as an assistant principal at Southeast, joked she and Drake didn’t even have winter coats when they arrived in Springfield.

"What’s kept us friends? Communication and that Mississippi bond," Jackson said. "She’s the reason I’m here, and I’m the reason she’s here. We’ve always kind of looked out for each other."

Another Rust College classmate, Martha Jordan, joined Drake and Jackson in Springfield after a year of teaching in Milwaukee. Jordan, a first-grade teacher at Graham Elementary and Horace Mann Educator of the Year in 2020, retired last year.

Drake and Jackson spent large chunks of their early teaching careers at elementary schools: Drake at Feitshans and Jackson at Pleasant Hill.

Drake moved on to a teaching position at Wanless Elementary where she became the literacy coach.

After pursuing her master’s degree at the University of Illinois Springfield, Drake did administrative internships at Wilcox, Fairview and Butler elementary schools before becoming director at Project SCOPE (Serving Children of Parents Employed), the district’s before- and after-school program.

"When I first started with SCOPE, I wanted to be an advocate for children," Drake said. "I went into the schools. I played basketball. I played checkers. I jumped rope. I didn’t want to sit in an office.

"Twenty-one schools and I know every last one of my workers. I know about their families. I know my children. When I see them in the grocery store, they know Ms. Queen from the SCOPE office."

Jackson eventually went to Feitshans Edison Academy as a teacher and there she started her administrative career.

That took her to Lawrence Education Center, then Lindsay Elementary before Southeast.

"Springfield has been good to me. District 186 has been good to me," said Jackson, who has one daughter.

For Drake, working in the district has been a family affair. Drake’s husband, Herbert, retired as a custodian from Lanphier High School. Her son Corey is an information systems specialist.

"I have met some wonderful people in the district," said Drake, who has four children and five grandchildren. "I have had great mentors, beautiful families that I’ve worked with and awesome children that I’ve taught. This has been my life for 35 years."

Jackson said she and Drake kept reminding one another that they came in together and were leaving together.

When Edna Shanklin found out Drake and Jackson were retiring, she teared up, Jackson recalled.

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"It was just like yesterday that we walked into this district," Jackson said.

‘A team experience’

Kris Gates spent several years as an ICU nurse before raising a family and going back to school to get her teaching certificate.

Gates retired after 17 years as a sixth-grade science teacher, first at Grant Middle School then at Lincoln Magnet School.

Gates said in a lot of ways she found the two fields similar.

"There’s a lot of teamwork involved in nursing," Gates explained "I had to learn to get along with a group of people who were on a team working to keep the patients going and healthy. Certainly, teaching has been a team experience, especially at Lincoln Magnet."

Gates was known for bringing monarch butterflies into her classroom in the fall, something she has volunteered to continue to do in her retirement.

Gates said she planned to travel, including visiting her three children.

Business not as usual

When Vonda Jenkins was hired in the fall of 1987 at Glenwood, among the classes she taught were typing, shorthand, office practice, business math and recordkeeping.

"Except for typing, none of those classes really exist anymore," Jenkins said. 

Now, she said, are geared toward entrepreneurship and marketing and what it takes to run a business.

Jenkins long supervised the cooperative education work program, where students get real work experience.

Jenkins said that experience, and with shows like "Shark Tank," students see business possibilities a lot more.

"Teens get a bad rap," Jenkins said. "There’s so much amazing talent coming through here, it’ll take your breath away. We don’t have to be as worried as we think we do when you’re wondering what’s going to happen with the world with these kids leading it. It’s going to be amazing."

Jenkins’ husband, Todd, retired as a teacher and coach from the Rochester School District in 2019. A daughter, Alyson Mann, is a counselor at the Glenwood Middle School.

Contact Steven Spearie: 217-622-1788,,

via The State Journal-Register

June 21, 2021 at 06:51AM

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