Cheryl Sullivan, principal at Beye School, found out within her first official year as principal of the elementary school just how far District 97’s love and support goes when she had to undergo brain surgery earlier this year.
Sullivan was diagnosed with non-malignant tumors that required brain surgery in February, and despite her positive attitude, it wasn’t how she imagined she would spend the last few months of her first year as principal at William Beye Elementary School, 230 N. Cuyler Ave., Oak Park.
“This is my first full year, I just couldn’t believe it was happening,” Sullivan said. “It has been a journey for me to become a principal, it has taken a while, so it just made me so sad. I came to accept that I needed to take the time that I needed.”
A resident of Oak Park for almost 24 years, Sullivan, who has been with the district for close to 18 of those years, said she has always believed in the district’s work and its mission, which made Oak Park Elementary School District 97 a perfect fit for someone who had always wanted to pursue education. Sullivan went on to teach fourth grade and also worked as a reading specialist before pursuing a master’s degree in educational leadership from Concordia University Chicago, in River Forest.
“I absolutely love being a principal and Beye feels like home, it feels like family,” Sullivan said. “I couldn’t be happier with where my journey has landed.”
Sullivan served as co-interim principal at Beye for the 2021-22 school year before taking over for the 2022-23 school year.
Sullivan’s whirlwind health story began with a few symptoms, including feeling off-balance, numbness, and dizziness, which led her to call her doctor for an appointment. Upon hearing her symptoms, Sullivan was directed immediately to the closest emergency room. Following a CT scan of her head, doctors discovered a meningioma tumor, a mass that arises from the meninges — the membranes that surround the brain and spinal cord.
Hearing that she needed surgery to remove the masses, one the size of a large avocado and one the size of a small avocado, and the estimated recovery time, Sullivan said her heart sank.
“My fourth shock, the one that brought tears to my eyes, was hearing it would be a 6-to-12-week recovery,” Sullivan said, adding she underwent the surgery on March 6.
All the mass was removed and was found to be benign.
“The doctor said they are very unlikely to ever return and once it was out my symptoms went away,” Sullivan said, adding almost all her symptoms went away immediately.
During this tough time, Sullivan remained optimistic and continued to have a strong desire to be back in the halls of Beye. The community at Beye was just as eager to have her back.
Throughout her health journey, Sullivan had been transparent with District 97, which rallied around her immediately. Sullivan said the district’s senior leaders, including Supt. Ushma Shah, along with other staff all gathered on a Friday afternoon for a last-minute meeting to figure out a way to support her, which included bringing Sheila Carter, who had previously served as co-interim principal with Sullivan, back to serve as interim principal during her leave.
“I have always told the staff that their health and their family come first,” Sullivan said. “So, when the tables were turned and I needed to prioritize my health, it was just so supported that everybody was like ‘we got this,’.”
From meal trains for the weeks she was out, to rocking headbands like the ones she was wearing upon her return, Beye faculty made sure Sullivan felt the support every step of the way.
Before going on leave, Sullivan was treated to a colorful sign reading “Sullivan Strong,” displayed outside the school and another display of paper flowers was showcased outside of the lunchroom and throughout the school with the same message written in the center of each flower. The effort was organized by administrative assistants Anna Harlan, Linda Cooper, and art teacher Kristen Sundquist.
When Sullivan returned to school, she was treated to a keepsake book presented to her during a special surprise all-school assembly, where the expanded “Sullivan Strong ” garden, spearheaded by PTO members Casey and Daniel Goldberg, were photographed and printed in the memory book.
“The love and support from this community has just been amazing,” Sullivan said, attributing it to one of the reasons why her surgery went so well. “I am blessed.”
Sullivan was granted her wish of being able to return to Beye before the end of the school year, miraculously only taking 8 weeks to recover versus the full 12, allowing her to witness all of the fun end-of-the-school year activities she was looking forward to, including Olympic days and fifth grade graduating events. Sullivan credits her strength to her family, her doctors, and the community support that never wavered throughout her journey.
“We can handle hard things because of the community for which we live,” Sullivan said.