The principal at this vaunted Near West Side school for the past 23 years, Kenner takes her open-door policy seriously. “Any student is allowed to come talk to me anytime,” she says. “I can be on the phone with the mayor, and if a kid comes in, I’ll say, ‘Hold on a second, I need to see what this student wants.’ ” She publishes a newsletter, Kenner’s Corner, in which students can anonymously ask her about anything, and she doesn’t shy away from tough topics: racial discrimination, gender equality, what’s not acceptable to wear to prom. “I love the controversy,” she says. Many of the questions she gets at this highly selective magnet school — where the average score on the ACT last year was 30 — are some variation on “What if I don’t get into any Ivy League school?” One of the ways Kenner, a former college cheerleader, eases the pressure is to encourage kids to focus a little less on academic achievement and more on extracurricular pursuits. “We’re always asking, ‘Do we need to identify other activities to help with the stress level?’ ” Whatever the students’ issues, Kenner believes that resolving them comes down to keeping that office door wide open. At the end of the day, she says, “I want the students to be able to say, ‘She knows me.’ ”
Eighty-four percent of the students at this Chatham school come from low-income families. Ninety-nine percent are black. Perry, who grew up a few blocks away, used to be one of them — she can walk out of her office and down the hall and see the desk she once sat at. Last year, when Dixon was designated a Level 1-plus school, the highest academic rating awarded by Chicago Public Schools, it was a moment of immense gratification for her. Even so, Perry, who also taught at the school for seven years, says she sees progress less as the sum of test scores and performance metrics and more in terms of nurturing confident young people who feel connected to their heritage and to each other. “I want the kids to embrace their culture as African American children,” Perry says. “It’s teaching them to be proud. I push them not just to be educationally strong, but to be good people.” To that end, Perry helps maintain a permanent exhibition of artwork by prominent and emerging black artists, including a painting by Jonathon Romain that’s especially well loved by students. It depicts two black boys, one with his arm draped around the other. It’s called My Brother’s Keeper.
“There’s a gene middle school teachers share,” says McElligott, who left the navy 19 years ago to pursue a career in public education, “because it’s a special type of person who can deal with the erraticness of adolescence.” While academic performance is consistently strong at this north suburban school, with 80 percent of students meeting or exceeding state standards on the PARCC exam, keeping kids on track has to go beyond classroom instruction, McElligott says: “Sometimes academics take a back seat to navigating personal life.” The explosion of social-media-driven bullying, among other factors, has made doing that harder. McElligott has enforced a strict “keep them in your locker” policy for cellphones — though he says he’ll still find the odd iPhone hidden in an Ugg boot — and he has encouraged teachers to create exercises that foster empathy. In one, students were subjected to noises and visual distractions during class so that they could better understand what school is like for those with ADHD. In another, students had to answer questions about a book read to them in a foreign language so that they got a sense of the difficulties facing English-language learners. “I’ll talk to them days later in the lunchroom,” McElligott says, “and their eyes are open to a lot of different things.”
It’s an open secret among students at Metea Valley High, in the far west suburbs, that their principal used to be a comic actor with bit parts on TV. Kids find the clips of old Saturday Night Live sketches and episodes from The Cosby Show on YouTube and rib him the next day. “I’m bald now, and when they see the pictures of me with the old box cut, they say, ‘Hey, you used to have hair!’ ” It’s hardly lost on Echols that a big part of a principal’s skill set is the ability to shift roles on the fly. And with one of the most ethnically and economically diverse student bodies in the Chicago area, Metea Valley offers no shortage of opportunities for Echols to do just that. “Some days I’m a social worker. Some days I’m the dean. Some days I’m the counselor.” One of the toughest moments on the job occurred two years ago, when a kid brought an unloaded gun to school. “The student wasn’t trying to harm anyone — he brought it to school to show off to a friend.” Echols found himself having to explain to teachers why he’d decided not to put the school on lockdown, which would have risked creating panic and chaos. Throughout the incident, he maintained a calm demeanor, keeping the disruption to a minimum, and he allowed worried teachers and students to go home early. “When something like that happens, I think it’s important to see that the leader doesn’t get frazzled.”