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Orozco Story

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Kids are making friends with kids they never would have talked with before and I think that’s only going to make the world better

– Efrain Martinez, Principal, Jose Clemente Orozco Academy. Doctoral student, National Louis University, Educational Leadership Program.

Unlike a bank that was going to give us money and not really care, I felt like Andy was really invested in my success

– Brennen Humphrey, MEd. Assistant Principal, Jose Clemente Orozco Academy. Class of 2015, Harvard Graduate School of Education, School Leadership Program.

Here, you shift the paradigm of a student’s life trajectory, not just academic but life

– Nisaini Rivera, MEd., Youth Intervention Specialist, Jose Clemente Orozco Academy. Class of 2018, Lehigh University, Educational Leadership and Administration Program.

In the heart of Pilsen, one of Chicago’s predominantly Latino neighborhoods that is tucked in the near southwest side of the city, is Jose Clemente Orozco Academy.

Offering a complex variety of programing from pre-k to 8th grade. Orozco Academy has gifted program, and a rigorous middle school educational system, this K-8 Chicago Public School is anything but typical. Fortunately for the students, their leaders don’t take a typical approach to administering education. This energetic trio has navigated remarkable life experiences and embraced unexpected opportunities, all of which are helping them prepare Orozco students for the world beyond the classroom.

Efrain Martinez grew up in Puerto Rico. At age 18, Martinez moved to Pennsylvania for his undergraduate work, then to Chicago to pursue a graduate degree in Hispanic Studies at UIC. He thought he was going to be a writer, a professor.

“To pay for my master’s I had to teach,” Martinez says. He taught Spanish classes as a teacher’s assistant. Then he realized that he was more in love with the idea of writing than the actual job of writing itself. Shifting gears, Martinez took office jobs sitting in front of a computer – and hating it.

“I started reflecting and thinking, when did I have fun doing something because I wanted to do it; something when I would say ‘I like this’,” Martinez says. “And I realized it was when I was at UIC teaching first and second year students.”

Orozco’s principal thinks long range while also patiently implementing day-to-day protocols. He is strategically setting up his students for success, ensuring that every single teacher is there for the students. But the school dynamic is complicated. Neighborhood kids enroll in grade 6, many coming from tough backgrounds or are at a socioeconomic disadvantage, while the population of kids in accelerated classes, the selective enrollment program, have been there since kindergarten, many coming from families who can afford to be more engaged in every aspect of their lives, often providing extracurricular activities, like piano lessons. That’s where strong, compassionate leadership comes in and where Martinez relies on his team to make a difference.

Assistant Principal Brennen Humphrey speaks quickly, passionately and directly.

“Success includes being crystal clear with teachers about expectations and values,” Humphrey says. “We are not a punitive school. We have restorative practices. Every decision we make we make for students. It’s made some people uncomfortable.”

Teachers have the choice to get on board with this set of values or move on. Raised by a single mother who worked as a special education administrator, Humphrey and her brother saw first-hand what education can do to overcome hardships.

“My mother taught us that education was really important because it made sure that we had food on the table, a roof over our head,” Humphrey says. “So that was always instilled in me growing up.”

But Humphrey’s first career choice wasn’t in education. “I wanted to go to law school but all through college I volunteered and tutored and I loved kids,” she says. Humphrey took her law school entrance exam, then Teach for America came knocking.

“Education has always been in my blood and it’s in my family history,” she says. “I knew our education system is not going to get better by continuing to be reactive in supporting people who weren’t well served.”

Humphrey went on to earn her master’s in education at Harvard University and needed a way to finance her degree. She learned about Andrew Davis and Education Equity, Inc. through Teach for America and decided to talk with him.

“Unlike a bank that was going to give us money and not really care, I felt like Andy was really invested in my success,” Humphrey says. Caring is a theme that this leadership team embraces while living up to its values of serving their students.

Martinez says that Humphrey’s ideas are breaking down barriers, which in turn reduces tensions, and improves morale and performance. “Coming to teach is much more than delivering your syllabus and start teaching,” Martinez says. He credits Humphrey for unifying the kids who are typically separated according to their academic paths, blending the neighborhood and selective enrollment students in daily homeroom and in WIN classes.

“There is a class division, so we’re making the middle school as heterogeneous as possible,” Martinez says.

Orozco teachers determine how to combine kids from the gifted and community programs by paying special attention to various interests, academic performance, social interactions. Although met with a bit of flurry and concern from some parents, the new model worked after only one year. NWEA test scores are up and kids are coexisting.

“We questioned why are kids in the homerooms that they’re in,” Humphrey says. “Homeroom is not academic; it’s social, emotional learning. Why are they grouped the way they are? They had never been in enrichment together, never been at lunch together, recess together; it doesn’t make sense because when they get to high school, that’s not reality.”

“We are doing this because first of all we are a school,” Martinez says. “Kids are making friends with kids they never would have talked with before and I think that’s only going to make the world better.”

Nisaini Rivera is confident that this school’s leadership strategies translate precisely into helping students succeed beyond the classroom. Before coming to Orozco, she, coincidentally, also worked for Teach for America. Orozco’s first youth intervention specialist is passionate about why Orozco is important:

“Here, you shift the paradigm of a student’s life trajectory, not just academic but life,” Rivera explains. “If you have self-efficacy then you are going to learn how to navigate life systems.”

While at Teach for America, she witnessed high schoolers who didn’t learn how to direct themselves at a younger age and had no idea how to even think about taking the SAT. “They are so overwhelmed. Our administration is prioritizing those softer skills, which are important so that when those kids get to those different pinnacles of life, they won’t shut down.”

Martinez agrees. While in Puerto Rico, GPA was never discussed, “I was accountable for my own thing. It shouldn’t be that way. Here, we’re preparing kids at 9th grade; why not prepare them in middle school so that they can be fully prepared in high school?”

Rivera was well on her way to work in the corporate world, serving on a Latino board, being groomed by a mentor, networking with the goal of securing a consulting job. Then her mentor introduced her to Teach for America, and like Humphrey who had sights on going a professional career route, Rivera didn’t want to give up all she had worked for, but something was nagging at her.

“My brother got a 35 on the ACT and he went to prison,” Rivera says. “That’s always bothered me. In the corporate life, you don’t talk about that.”

Her mentor’s advice? Don’t forget about who you are just because you want to climb the corporate ladder. Rivera made the leap, engaging in teaching experiences in underserved areas before coming to Orozco.

Martinez created a new position that Rivera filled, shifting the post from a punitive disciplinarian to a student development teaching role. “Now as a teacher, she also has responsibility of teaching student development classes because we also want this type of instruction directly with students,” Martinez says.

“You just know crisis is going to be here,” Rivera says. “We need to give these kids a better life. Character development; teaching them self-efficacy.”

Rivera completed her master’s in education at Lehigh University, and turned to EEI to finance her education. “I got to talk with Andy,” she says. “I had a long conversation with him on the phone, then I met him in person. I liked him and he liked me, and the rest is history.”

Equity is at the core of serving students at Orozco.

Martinez points to a poster on his door. It’s a three-panel drawing, illustrating scenarios in which people of various heights are trying to look over a fence. He dwells on the panel where everyone has the same size box on which to stand, but because some people are shorter still not everyone can see over the fence, and he emphasizes that this isn’t equity. The same size box doesn’t mean that everyone is on the same level. Some people need a taller box. Fulfilling that is equity and that’s how to bridge gaps.

“Some kids don’t have dinner to eat on Sunday,” Martinez says. “Can’t even think about ironing their shirt. We all need to realize differences and what truly is equity.”

Martinez is a third of the way through his EdD program at National Louis University. “I had been thinking about doing a doctorate forever, like my second year of teaching, and wondering how was I going to pay for it.” Humphrey encouraged him to talk with Andy at EEI. “’Equity’ stuck with me as the name of Andy’s company because we’re always fighting for that. Not about being fair – about giving everybody what is right for them.” He nods toward the poster. The group is excited about the new school year, with opportunities to expand upon their ideas that help empower students, and round out teacher hiring, aiming for 100% teacher participation in serving the student.

“We’re laser focused on what we want,” Martinez says. “We’re a team. We’re very excited to see people working for kids and everybody engaged. It helps with everything.”

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.