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New School Leaders

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I’ll be done paying off my doctorate before my master’s because of the Education Equity student funding program

– Gwyenth Kram, PhD, Principal, McCutcheon Elementary, Chicago. Class of 2018, UIC Center for Urban Leadership Program

Gwyn is part of a new breed of principals who lead schools to performance levels that socio-economic status would not predict

 – Steve Tozer, PhD, Director of the Center for Urban Leadership Program and Professor of Education Policy Studies at UIC

Gwyn Kram’s parents modeled a path of service to her and her three older siblings, so it’s no wonder they each quickly found their roles as leaders who help others.

“They authentically care about people,” Gwyn said of her parents. Those who know Gwyn would say the same about her. A recent graduate of UIC’s Urban Leadership Program, Gwyn is the principal of McCutcheon Elementary School in Chicago’s Uptown neighborhood. A residential community on Chicago’s far north side with Lake Michigan hugging its east boundary and a history richly rooted in the entertainment industry, Uptown remains one of the seriously challenged neighborhoods for its homeless children and families, with its high population of homelessness that seems to almost guarantee failure in the classroom.

Yet Gwyn and her team are tackling those challenges head on, with remarkable results even early in her tenure as principal. She’s quick to note that her assistant principal is her partner, whose teamwork helps ensure progress in order to support their kids. They’re identifying key elements of what is missing in the student’s life that will help the child succeed – in and out of the classroom.

“We want to make sure we service the whole child,” Gwyn said. “My assistant principal and I have been dedicated to finding mental health services because we have a large homeless population. With homelessness often comes mental illness – a lot of the students who have been at three, four, five different schools. I would be upset, angry and confused, too. We have four mental health partners that come in and do counseling within the school during class time.”

This is part of what Gwyn refers to as “intervention services,” with those services extending to a menu of options for McCutcheon’s teachers to customize for their students; options including math and reading from outside sources with whom Gwyn has either strengthened or formed partnerships. And these services are going to any student who needs them, grades K-8, free of charge.

Steve Tozer continues to take interest in what Gwyn’s tackling head-on at McCutcheon. Steve is the director of the Center for Urban Leadership Program and professor of Education Policy Studies at UIC. He has known Gwyn since she entered the UIC leadership program six year ago. This university-based school leader preparation program works in partnership with Chicago Public Schools. Candidates, typically in teacher leader or assistant principal positions, are selected for their promise to develop into effective urban school leaders. As with all students in this UIC program, Gwyn was already on the leadership trajectory when she applied.

“Gwyn met all three important criteria: Strong instructional chops; experience as a teacher leader in her school, and she clearly had the fire in the belly. We thought she was a good bet,” Steve said. “Her performance in the program demonstrated we made a good bet in her case.”

Now having completed two years as principal and graduated from the leadership program, Gwyn – and others – are seeing positive outcomes at McCutcheon.

“We’re interested in her work because one feature of her school is a really difficult feature to overcome — high student mobility,” Steve said. “She had 60% mobility and maintained a 1-plus status in her building. Relationships with parents, students, making sure her curriculum and instruction is still strong despite her high turnover rate. She’s having some real success in the face of that and we’re interested in learning from this.” A level 1-plus status is the topmost rating a school can earn from the Chicago Public School board. Metrics are based on variables including test scores, attendance and student gains.

Initially, Gwyn didn’t decide to pursue her doctorate education at UIC on her own accord. She credits UIC leadership coach Dr. Cynthia Barron, who encouraged her to apply after noticing Gwyn’s work as a project manager for the ISBE school improvement grant. Gwyn wasn’t sure she would be a good fit, even though she had three principals telling her to “go be a leader.” Gwyn applied and Steve recognized her track record as one that would continue to reap success, especially after graduating from the leadership program. “Little did I know it would change the rest of my life,” she said. “The UIC program is exceptional. When you get accepted to UIC, you’re part of a family.”

Paying for her next level of professional education was another important consideration when returning to school. “I didn’t want to take out any more federal loans,” Gwyn said. “Education Equity has funded the whole program, making it possible for me to do it. I’ll be done paying off my doctorate before my master’s because of this student funding program.”

Gwyn also notes that Education Equity, Inc. founder and CEO Andrew A. Davis took note of what was happening with Gwyn and with her school. “Andy invested time, energy and care,” she said.

Steve and Andy aren’t the only ones taking notice of what’s happening at McCutcheon. Community businesses are also rallying around Gwyn’s leadership and investing in their neighborhood students, as evidenced by a spirited fundraiser in an Uptown restaurant just before the end of the school year. The Edgewater Uptown Builders Association had selected McCutcheon as the benefactor for that month’s fundraising event.

Gwyn’s warmth and energy was like a beacon to this full-capacity of parents, building professionals and supporters as she both worked her way through the room and enthusiastically greeted those who approached her. But the real magic that night was at the microphone. While the emcee had a hard time quieting the crowd, it took Gwyn all of under ten seconds as she firmly but politely let guests know that it was time to direct full attention to two of McCutcheon’s students – rising 4th and 8th graders – who were there to tell their stories and express appreciation for those who are investing in their school. The crowd happily complied. That fundraiser netted $40,000 – a record for this group – that will go toward after-school programs and learning outside of the classroom, like field trips.

“Having people outside care about the kids and the community and the teachers is such a big piece,” Gwyn said. “It gives us motivation; keeps us going.”

Gwyn notes that while she’s constantly learning on the job, learning also helps her plan better each year. She credits watching kids grow and develop; creating leaders out of teachers and staff, and getting the resources that her school needs and deserves as the fun parts of her job.

“Gwyn is part of a new breed of principals who lead schools to performance levels that socio-economic status would not predict,” Steve said. “This is particularly germane to McCutcheon school.”

Just days from the end of the school year, Gwyn declares that “this year has become the best,” with no doubt that even better is yet to come.