Photo of a Headshot of Principal Dr. Spence of Blue Island-Robbins NN

If you want to learn about a community, take a look at its schools. Who attends them? What’s being taught? Where are the students struggling and succeeding?

As leaders of their schools, principals play a crucial role in the success of students. They create the culture and have the power to steer the institution toward achievement. United Way of Metro Chicago appreciates their contribution and is proud to highlight the principals who work in our Neighborhood Networks during Principal Appreciation Week.

Caring for students beyond the classroom

For two years, Dr. Monica Spence has served as principal of Thomas J. Kellar Middle School in Robbins, which is part of our Blue Island-Robbins Neighborhood Network.

During her tenure, Dr. Spence has developed her own leadership style, one that’s based on learning from the past and prioritizing strong communication with her students and their parents. She reminisces of a time when “your teacher actually knew your parents” and aims for that connection with her 501 students, all of whom require additional life supports to address to non-academic challenges.

“Our children arrive to school with baggage from home,” Dr. Spence said, ranging from domestic abuse to trauma from gun violence. Spence tries to build a relationship with each student to help them manage. “It’s easier once they know, ‘I can trust you,’” she says.

Spence became a teacher because she had a knack for getting kids to open up, and now she uses it more than ever. But the communication isn’t one-way. “They think I’m teaching them,” she says, “but I learn more about life through their experiences than anything else. Every day, I learn something new from them.”

“They think I’m teaching them, but I learn more about life through [the students'] experiences than anything else."
Photo of Richard Morris

Schools serve the whole family

Principal Richard Morris, of Burroughs Elementary School in the Brighton Park Neighborhood Network, knows a little something about creating strong community ties.

The Network’s longest serving principal, Mr. Morris has created a school environment where all are welcome and encouraged to build connections.  He does so by encouraging parents to participate in their students’ academic lives and partnering with neighborhood agencies to offer services and activities to families.  Instead of spending time in his office, he greets his students and their parents when they arrive and helps support a training program to teach parents to serve as teachers’ aides in the classroom.

“This school belongs to the community,” Principal Morris said at a parent-teacher meeting. “It does not belong to [Chicago Public Schools] or the mayor. It belongs to you.”

Building community starts with schools

United Way of Metro Chicago believes that educated children and youth are the future. By helping to build a strong foundation in education and empowering parents to support their child’s learning and development, we can ensure that kids have the skills to be successful in school and in life.

United Way’s Stronger Neighborhood for a Stronger Chicago investment plan supports schools like Burroughs Elementary School through its membership in the Brighton Park Neighborhood Network. There are 9 schools in the network, all of which take an integrated approach to academics, health and social services, youth and community development and community engagement.

If you want a world-class city, you need great schools. It takes strong principals to make it happen, and we’re proud to partner with some of the best.

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