Future of Schools

What’s job No. 1 for a new principal? Three new Chicago chiefs say it’s building trust.

PHOTO: Maria Amador
Maria Amador (center) is the incoming principal at Multicultural Academy of Scholarship High School

When school starts next week, 17 Chicago Public Schools will have new principals.

Among these leaders are Femi Skanes, who will be at a high school in Morgan Park, not far from her home; Latasha Geverola, who has the top job at the South Austin elementary school where she has spent most of her career, and Maria Amador, who will be the third person in two years to take the helm at the Little Village school she is joining. They face disparate challenges, to be sure, but all agree that their first order of business is building up trust among the school community — including among students and parents, faculty and staff.

“I don’t want to make changes that the teachers and students aren’t involved in,” Amador said. “I don’t want it to be a top-down administration.”

As they get situated, there’s a lot to juggle. On top of overseeing staff and curriculum, many Chicago schools are dealing with budget cuts that are the result of decreasing enrollment across the district. And as of this year, principals also have more duties in vetting and monitoring volunteers and ensuring that all staff undergo Title IX training.

The veteran principal at Taft High School in Norwood Park, Mark Grishaber, said he encourages new principals to identify their own set of priorities and keep them front of mind.

“When you go to a big school district, you have to hold on to your vision because there’s so much you have to fly with,” he said. (Grishaber also offers up new hires some advice on self-care: “Don’t check your emails an hour before you go to bed or when you wake up in middle of night. Or else you’ll never be able to sleep.”)

Chalkbeat sat down with Skanes, Geverola and Amador to hear about their hopes for the coming school year.

Bringing back the arts

Amador, a former assistant principal at Taft, will be the third principal in just two years at Multicultural Academy of Scholarship in Little Village. Beyond establishing ties with a school community that’s seen leaders come and go, she’s focusing on strengthening the school’s identity as an arts center.

Multicultural was founded in 2004 as Multicultural Arts High School. In 2010 the then-principal changed the name to make it sound more academically rigorous and to help it compete with the growing number of nearby charter schools. Edward Cisneros, a theater teacher entering his 12th year at Multicultural, said that with high principal turnover and budget cuts, the school has also lost partnerships with arts organizations and had to lay off its music teacher.

When Amador began interviewing at the school, she said she found that “the staff is missing that passion for the arts that used to be reflected in the name.”

One question that will guide her work is: “How do we give life to that name?”

She aims to build the music program back up and hopes to start a mariachi band, given that the school is located in a community where a majority of residents are Hispanic. She also wants to rebuild partnerships with the Art Institute and Columbia College.

An overt commitment to the arts would also “be a tremendous boost” in terms of enrollment, said Cisneros. “We have one of strongest arts offerings in the city,” he said. “Promoting that would help us attract students who may pass up Multicultural because they don’t know that.”

And as recent high school application data show, arts programs are among the most in demand programs across Chicago.

Clearing up misconceptions

Skanes, the outgoing principal at Al Raby High School in East Garfield Park, is joining Morgan Park High School on the South Side.

As a longtime resident of Beverly, just north of Morgan Park, Skanes said she’s noticed there are negative perceptions about the school because its perks are not highlighted. She intends to change that.

“Everybody knows that Morgan Park has a great basketball team,” Skanes said, “but it also has this whole comprehensive sports program. People also don’t know about the number of AP course offerings or dual credit course offerings.”

To get the word out, she plans to increase the school’s social media presence and to advertise monthly in a neighborhood newspaper, Beverly Review. She also plans to expand community service opportunities to get more students out in the neighborhood.

“The goal is to help people re-envision themselves as a school community,” she said.

Giving families a room of their own

Geverola, the incoming principal at Oscar DePriest Elementary School in South Austin, has worked at the school for most of her career.

In fact, Geverola’s first teaching job right after college was at DePriest. She said that on her first day there, during an ice-breaker, she told the staff, “Someday I’d like to be principal here.” In the intervening 15 years, she’s served as a 6th grade teacher, an IB program coordinator, and most recently as an assistant principal. She’s finally reached the goal she set for herself all those years ago. And now her “number one priority is bringing the community in, engaging families and parents.”

“We’re now combatting a lot of violence in the community,” she said, noting that school staff need “to be in this community to help it thrive.”

Geverola said she plans to use part of a $500,000 grant the school received from the district’s Sustainable Community School Initiative to reopen a “parent room,” where parents can go to workshop resumes and take computer classes. In recent years, that room has been used to house counselors and other staff.

She said she wants parents to “push us to be better for you and your children — we can’t do that if you’re silent.”

Big money

Chunk of $55 million AbbVie gift will go toward more counselors in schools

PHOTO: Courtesy of Communities in Schools
Counselors in Schools site coordinator Artesha Williams and student Nasje Adams at the King Academy of Social Justice in Chicago

Sixteen more Chicago schools will add full-time counselors charged with reducing dropouts and helping students with critical mental health issues, thanks to a chunk of a $55 million donation gift from a North Chicago pharmaceutical giant.

The AbbVie donation, announced Friday, will be split among three nonprofit groups with a Chicago presence, though not all the money will be spent here. Communities in Schools will receive $30 million for its national efforts to broker relationships between community organizations and schools; the University of Chicago’s Education Lab, which focuses on dropout prevention and college persistence, will receive $15 million; and City Year, which places AmeriCorps tutors and mentors in schools, will receive $10 million.

Communities in Schools, which received the largest gift, will spend $6 million of its $30 million on its Chicago chapter, while the City Year money will be split among Chicago and a project in San Jose, California.

Jane Mentzinger, the executive director of Communities in Schools Chicago, said the $6 million is “transformational” and will be spent on a program that assigns full-time, master’s-level counselors to public schools on the South and West sides.

The AbbVie gift will grow a program that currently places full-time counselors in 15 Chicago schools, adding five schools this year and another 11 next fall.

“In each school, they case manage the 50 highest-need students who are at risk of falling behind and dropping out,” said Mentzinger. “They really work with students is to help resolve conflict, regulate emotions, and provide exposure opportunities, from support and mentoring to counseling.”  

The counselor piece helps fill a dire need within Chicago’s schools: mental health and trauma services. Students, educators, parents, and union leaders regularly lament that the district does not staff enough counselors and mental health practitioners, and that recent efforts have been too focused on college and career-readiness — including helping students draft a post-secondary plan. Starting with the Class of 2020, seniors must produce such a plan to graduate, a controversial idea championed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

In July, Chicago schools CEO Janice Jackson announced that the district would hire some 250 new social workers and special education case managers for schools.

Mentzinger said the value of sending in counselors who are employed by an outside agency, and not by the district, is that they have fewer administrative duties and so can cast a “wider net” among master’s degree candidates who might have non-traditional degrees such as art therapy or dance. “The level of need of our kids — we need to have more layers, more layers of work.”

A recent Steinmetz High School graduate, Emily Jade Aguilar, told Chalkbeat on Election Day that she was knocking on doors to get out the vote. Aguilar, who identifies as a trans woman, said the biggest issue driving her activism was mental health for students. “We need more mental health resources in our schools,” said Aguilar, whose school had four counselors for 1,200 students last year.

According to federal data from the 2015-16 school year, Chicago had 2.8 guidance counselors, social workers, and psychologists for every 1,000 students — fewer than in many other large cities. National guidance counselors and social workers groups recommend having one counselor and one social worker each for every 250 students. In schools with “intensive” needs, that ratio falls to one social worker for every 50 students.

In addition to providing counselors, Communities in Schools brokers relationships between nonprofit organizations and 160 schools to provide art and enrichment, mental health services, health care and college and career readiness programming.

snow fallout

From stalled buses to canceled programs, New York City schools are bearing brunt of snow storm

PHOTO: Guillermo Murcia / Getty Images
A school bus on Dekalb avenue in Fort Greene Brooklyn during a snow storm.

Parents, students, and teachers are dealing with the fallout of Thursday’s snowstorm, which stranded yellow buses for hours, created brutal commutes, and forced teachers to stay late for parent conferences.

Just before 9 a.m. Friday, schools Chancellor Richard Carranza announced all after-school programs would be cancelled, sending families scrambling to make arrangements. And perhaps anticipating yet another wave of yellow-bus related problems, all field trips involving buses were also cancelled.

Some parents and educators took to social media to vent about the city’s response.

Emergency responders were dispatched to free five children with special needs who had been trapped on a school bus for 10 hours, according to City Councilman Ben Kallos. Traveling from Manhattan to the Bronx, students didn’t make it home until “well after midnight,” Kallos said in a statement. The councilman has sponsored legislation to require GPS tracking on yellow buses after the school year began with horror stories about long, circuitous routes. Many riders are children with special needs who travel to programs outside their neighborhoods.

The education department did not immediately respond to questions about the timing of their decision to cancel after-school programs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said the city would conduct a”full operational review of what happened,” referring to the city’s response to the storm. “We have to figure out how to make adjustments when we have only a few hours but this was—I hate to use this hackneyed phrase—but this was kind of a perfect storm: late information, right up on rush hour, and then a particularly fast, heavy kind of snow.”

The politics of snow-related closures are challenging, forcing city leaders to balance concerns about safety with the needs of working families, who may struggle to make arrangements for emergency childcare.

Snow-day related cancellations have bedeviled previous chancellors; in one famous incident, former Chancellor Carmen Fariña and de Blasio kept schools open despite a forecast of 10 inches of snow. The next day, Fariña proclaimed it was “a beautiful day.”

Still, the de Blasio administration is much more likely to cancel school in response to snow than his predecessor, Michael Bloomberg.

Christina Veiga contributed.