Neighbors: For Leslie DeFrates, foundation role a way to continue family tradition in education

Leslie DeFrates has served as executive director of the Jacksonville Public Schools Foundation since August 1, bringing family tradition to the job.

“It’s a way of continuing my family’s educational legacy,” DeFrates said.

DeFrates spent 30 years in college administration before assuming leadership of the foundation. Her late father was a longtime teacher and education administrator, her mother was a preschool teacher, and DeFrates’ sister also taught school.

“The Public Schools Foundation seemed like a natural next step. I had spent 30 years in college administration helping provide resources to college students,” said DeFrates. “This opportunity allows me to work with the school district to help them prepare students for college or whatever that next step in life may be.”

DeFrates was on the board of directors of the Jacksonville Public Schools Foundation when former executive director Amy Albers announced that she was retiring. DeFrates had taken a year off from her career to look for a better work-life balance and thought the foundation would be a great opportunity for her to get back into the workforce and do what she does best , namely to help students.

“Having experience serving on the board and knowing what the Foundation does, what it stands for, and how it works with the school district has been a huge blessing,” DeFrates said. “It also gave me the work-life balance I was looking for.”

DeFrates applied for the position, was hired by the Board of Trustees in June, and spent the summer learning about the position from Albers, who was retiring.

“She was wonderful in providing me with all the information I needed to intervene,” DeFrates said. “Thanks to her, I had the full picture, so it was a really good opportunity to make the switch.”

DeFrates said she will launch some new initiatives and might try different approaches, but the foundation was handed over to her stewardship in great shape, so she doesn’t plan to change much.

“I’m not someone who comes in and radically changes things,” DeFrates said. “I want to push things that are done well and see where I can take them.”

“It’s amazing how Jacksonville brings students into the classroom in the best conditions to study,” said DeFrates. “The Jacksonville community has been extremely supportive of the annual Believe in Education Sweepstakes. We receive a lot of monetary donations and the donation of things like musical instruments for our Play it Forward campaign, where we refurbish instruments for students who want to join a band but don’t have the funds to buy a new instrument.”

DeFrates also referenced the Lions Club partnership to provide school supplies to students in need, the Shared Spirit sponsorship, which helps provide shoes to students, and the Coats for Kids program with donation boxes, courtesy of Edward Jones to be set up in the city.

DeFrates is particularly proud of the $10,000 raised for the foundation’s teacher grant program this year.

“We previously raised about $4,000, and this year we were able to reach $10,000 with a matching grant from the foundation,” DeFrates said. “This goes back to the district to support teachers who apply with innovative and creative ideas to enhance learning in the classroom.”

After graduating from Illinois College, DeFrates began her career as the director of financial aid at Brown’s Business College in Springfield. She then moved to Lincoln Land Community College as Assistant Director of Financial Aids. When Lincoln Land decided to develop a new mainframe system, DeFrates provided campus leadership for the transition.

DeFrates next moved to the University of Illinois Springfield as Associate Director of Financial Aids, worked briefly in private student loan sales, and then returned to UIS to oversee graduate education programs and the college catalog for the Office of the Provost.

The next career opportunity came at DeFrate’s alma mater, Illinois College.

“The position began as Executive Assistant to the President and then quickly turned into a great growth opportunity where I completed my career as Assistant Vice President and Assistant Secretary to the Board of Directors,” said DeFrates. “I was the liaison for all departments across campus, the main liaison to the board of trustees, and also oversaw human resources and public safety.”

“I loved the job at IC, but I needed a better work-life balance, so I took a few years off to decide what my next steps would be,” DeFrates said. “I stayed with IC for about a year as a consultant, then I had about a year to just enjoy life.”

That was when the Jacksonville Public Schools Foundation’s opportunity presented itself.

DeFrates continues a family legacy of service to Jacksonville School District 117. Her late father, Tom Smith, was a lifelong district employee who taught English at Jonathan Turner Junior High and Jacksonville High School, was principal of Franklin and South Jacksonville Elementary Schools, and became the Assistant Superintendent of District 117 in 1992.

After retiring from the school district, Tom became executive director of the Western Regional Education Center for Lincoln Land Community College in Jacksonville, then professor of teacher education programs at Illinois College.

DeFrates’ mother, Elizabeth Smith, served the school district for several decades as a teacher, primarily as the Chapter One Reading Specialist at Jefferson and Lincoln Elementary Schools. Elizabeth was also the first nationally certified teacher for District 117.

Rachael Traywick, DeFrates’ sister, was a teacher in the Decatur area, then attended Jacksonville High School, where she finished her career as an English teacher.

DeFrates and her husband Don, the vice president of operations at Furman Engineering in Springfield, own four Bernese Mountain Dogs, “so we have 500-pound dogs, our dogs are our children,” she said.

Meanwhile, DeFrates has already made an impact in her new role at the Jacksonville Public Schools Foundation and is grateful to have been able to join an already well-run organization.

“Another thing that attracted me to the position was that the foundation was run so well that there weren’t any issues that needed fixing,” DeFrates said. “I look forward to continuing my family tradition of educational service here.”

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