Kiwana Sanders grew up imagining the golden possibilities that she felt sure were waiting in the world outside her ZIP code.
“I was one who was without,” says Sanders, principal of Nathan Hale Middle School in Cook County School District 130 of Blue Island. “Neither of my parents were college graduates; in fact, my father did not finish elementary school. I came from an area that was poverty-stricken, but I was blessed to dream beyond 60620.”
Her personal journey, and her 25-year career in education in and around Chicago, constantly remind her of the danger of failing to “look back” and helping children to do more than wonder.
“Our communities will crumble,” she says, “and I don’t want my sons, nieces and nephews to be left with a feeling of, ‘We can’t do better.’ You can’t be what you can’t see. I feel like it’s my responsibility to go back and show that it doesn’t have to be that way.”
That sense of obligation that drove Sanders to the principal’s office also led her to the NIU College of Education’s Marguerite Key Fellows.
She was one of six members of the Class of 2019, continuing and advancing an initiative launched in 2018 by Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations Chair Carolyn Pluim and department instructor Alan Clemens.
Clemens proposed to Pluim a way to tap dollars available from the Marguerite F. Key Expendable Fund for the College of Education that would bring together principals from across NIU’s service region to share their innovative ideas and best practices for not only shepherding underserved students into college but also preparing them for success there.
Simply put, the principals talk about progressive ways to “unlock” higher education for underserved populations of students facing the most significant obstacles to college access and college success – and who are the country’s largest source of growth potential.
“I am really quite thrilled with where we’re at after two years,” says Clemens, who is now director of the Illinois Report Card in the NIU Division of Outreach, Engagement and Regional Development and remains on the Marguerite F. Key Fellows Program Advisory Board.
“We have had two excellent pools of candidates and awarded fellows in the first two years of the program, and we have been able to achieve some benchmarks in terms of geographic diversity and candidate diversity,” he adds, “and I don’t mean diversity in simple terms. I mean it in different ways – jobs, programs, areas, gender, ethnography.”
Pluim shares that enthusiasm.
Fellows have shown a strong interest in collaboration and in building a professional community, she says, and are working with “a nice sense of candor” and camaraderie.
“I’m excited about their passion, the ideas they bring to the table and, to be quite frank, their willingness to engage with people they haven’t met before and to talk about the problems they’re having in their own districts and the possible solution,” Pluim says. “It’s not just us talking to them. It’s giving them the opportunity to share best practices from their own school districts.”
Both years “generated quite rigorous discussion and provided a great deal of food for thought for attendees,” Clemens confirms.
Conversations proved “timely, valuable and inspirational in the sense that they suggested solution,” he adds, “and connected practitioners in the community with other practitioners in the community who are achieving some success.”
Doing so can facilitate a constructive disruption of the model, he says.
“In this era of accountability, it’s understandable that students in our licensure program and practitioners in the field have an interest in those ways of approaching schooling that appear to be having some success. There’s a danger, though, of developing a kind of group-think in the attempts to replicate those models and trends because it can really limit or narrow the range of ideas we consider as we confront complex issues in the field,” Clemens says.
“What I’m really excited about are moments where can celebrate diversity of approach, where we can talk about how there are really distinctive ways to achieve those ends, and to recognize those programs that are bringing innovation to the issue of increasing college attainment and college completion,” he adds.
“These principals are really doing that in different ways, in very different environments, and bringing a diversity of approach in their response to the problems that is really refreshing.”
Sanders valued her opportunity to share with and listen to the others in her class:
- Brett Elliott, principal of Peoria Richwoods High School;
- Courtney Goodman, principal of John Middleton Elementary School in Skokie;
- Kathy Rodriguez, principal of Charter Oak Primary School in Peoria;
- Jeff Wardle, principal of Buffalo Grove High School; and
- Stuart Wrzesinski, principal of Palos South Middle School in Palos Park.
“You have to collaborate in order to grow and to help build a community of educators and a community of lifelong learners,” Sanders says. “We are all like-minded individuals who want to elevate kids to the next level, to live and dream beyond their walls. It really was an enlightening experience for me.”
Many ideas were on the table from their current workplaces.
Career Pathways programs. Dual-credit enrollment. Affirmational social media hashtags. A Freshman Leadership Academy. Peer-tutoring. Academic focuses on matters of societal importance. Professional Learning Communities. Late-start school days. Alliances with EOS: Equal Opportunity Schools to close the gap of minority students in advanced coursework.
For her part, Sanders eliminated a school building wing that separated students with Individualized Education Programs from the rest of the school, sponsored a Girls on the Run organization, encouraged federal TRIO programs and continually strives to attract and retain people into the education profession, including minorities and men.
Hearing some of the day-to-day tales of her colleagues provided some comfort.
“Many of us are challenged with trying to do some innovative things, and it’s hard to get everybody on board. I realized that I wasn’t alone in some of my challenges,” she says. “I realized that there were people in that room who could help me to not become disenchanted with working in education because of this, or that, but to be inspired to continue doing the work I’m passionate about.”
That’s just what Clemens likes to see and hear after the day-long Marguerite Key gatherings.
“All of these kinds of indicators lead us to be quite confident that the future of this program is being built on really sound foundations,” he says. “We’re able to explore involving administrators from every corner of the state and from every level of building, and we’re really looking forward to the period when we can start involving alumni of the program.”
Patrick Hardy, a member of the 2018 inaugural group of Marguerite Key Fellows, already made that happen.
Hardy, principal at Proviso East High School, returned in 2019 to provide encouragement and to facilitate a discussion on “competency education” – just one of many innovations some schools are implement in the hopes of improving student success.
“Competency education is an idea that is being explored with some vigor by a number of districts,” Clemens says. “Kids are being evaluated, and earning credits as they move through school, on staff evaluations of their demonstrated competencies instead of being given traditional letter grades.”
As Year 3 approaches in 2020, and the likelihood that one of the 2019 Fellows will return to serve in Hardy’s role as an alumni guest speaker, Clemens is eager to keep the momentum gaining speed.
“We are building channels to formalize the ways we touch base with our Fellows on an ongoing basis,” Clemens says.
“I’m also exploring this with the Year 1 and Year 2 alums: Now that these events have passed, and you’re back to your daily grind, what kind of vehicle would you have the time and motivation to invest in? An online community, where you could communicate with each other? Email exchanges? I’m really looking for an honest assessment of the vehicles they would use.”