Marguerite F. Key Fellows gather online, discuss COVID, post-secondary success

Laurie Elish-Piper
Laurie Elish-Piper

Principals, Laurie Elish-Piper said, are the hearts of their schools.

Their confidence in the ideas and abilities of teachers empowers those teachers to do their best work, she said.

Their leadership in our schools forges the backbone of a democratic society, preparing young people “not only for the world that exists now but for the world that they will create” and to “think not just what is but what can be and what will be.”

Even COVID-19 has proven no match.

“Our best principals are in the background, rolling up their sleeves and making things happen,” said Elish-Piper, dean of the NIU College of Education. “I’m so incredibly impressed with the grace and the professionalism and the can-do spirit.”

Her words, spoken Sept. 14, offered a welcome pat on the backs of the 2021 class of NIU Marguerite F. Key Fellows.

Marguerite Key
Marguerite F. Key

Recipients of the program’s third round of fellowships, awarded to principals who promote the long-term growth and vitality of their communities and neighbors, gathered via Zoom to share information about their schools, discuss their way through the pandemic and offer ideas on the ways “informal data” can improve schools in the era of accountability.

It’s exactly why Key put her dollars behind the program, said Carolyn Pluim, chair of the Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations: “Marguerite’s passion is for leadership in schools, and wanting schools to be run with integrity, care and excellence. She wanted visionary leaders in schools.”

Members of the diverse group represent principals of urban, suburban, rural, public and private institutions across the K-12 spectrum.

  • Francisco Borras, Spry Community Links High School, Chicago
  • Annette Coleman, Peoria High School, Peoria
  • Emily Feltes, North Grand High School, Chicago
  • Kelly Neylon, Meadowview Elementary School, Woodridge
  • Amonaquenette Parker, Huntley Middle School, DeKalb
  • Kathleen Porreca, Ed.D., Regina Dominican High School, Wilmette
  • Kathleen Schipper, River Bend Middle School, Fulton
  • Monica Spence, assistant superintendent of Student Services, Posen-Robbins School District 143.5, Posen
  • Jason Stipp, Waubonsie Valley High School, Aurora

Alan Clemens, director of the Illinois Report Card and a member of Marguerite F. Key Fellows Program Advisory Board, called the section process “extraordinarily difficult” given the largest pool of excellent nominees in the program’s history.

Top: Francisco Borras, Annette Coleman, Emily Feltes. Middle: Kelly Neylon, Amonaquenette Parker, Kathleen Porreca. Bottom: Kathleen Schipper, Monica Spence, Jason Stipp.
Top: Francisco Borras, Annette Coleman, Emily Feltes.
Middle: Kelly Neylon, Amonaquenette Parker, Kathleen Porreca.
Bottom: Kathleen Schipper, Monica Spence, Jason Stipp.

Clemens is pleased with the diversity of interests, talents and roles among the new fellows.

“Operating under the circumstances forced upon educators by COVID over the last two years has been unimaginably stressful and isolating, and now more than ever having communities of support is vitally important for school staffs and especially for principals, who by the very nature of their position often have to look outside their buildings for peer support,” he said.

“The challenges of responding to the crises we have faced and continue to face across our educational communities during COVID have drawn more attention to communities like these,” he added, “that recognize excellence and draw a group of talented people together to find innovative solutions to complex problems.”

Feltes, for example, told her counterparts that 97% of her students are living in poverty in a ZIP code labeled “the epicenter of the virus.” None has a computer, she said.

As she and her team distributed 1,000 meals a day during the pandemic, they were worried about more than whether the North Grand High School students had food: Were they safe? Did they have access to health care? Did they have access to the internet and devices?

Over the summer, Feltes and her colleagues conducted “re-engagement” efforts to contact students who hadn’t shown up online during the months of virtual learning or who were considered at-risk.

She is now grateful for one of the opportunities COVID presented to her teachers: “a little bit of a window” into the homes of students and its glimpse of the levels of trauma they were facing.

It fostered “a different mindset,” Feltes said. “A lot of our people came back with a little more of a socioemotional learning focus,” she said. “That’s something I’m proud of.”

Waubonsie Valley High School posted higher SAT scores and pass rates than in previous years, Stipp said, as the virus promoted teachers “to really focus on essential assignments” and “meeting students where they were at.”

Despite that triumph, however, Stipp told the group that he is concerned by how much his students interact with their technology.

“They feel they are very connected, either through social media or the information age, but they’ve never been more disconnected to what a community is,” he said. “We’re seeing a generation of students who are very isolated, even though they don’t think that.”

He considers it a call to action for educators to remind students “when they’re in front of us of the importance of how to be a part of society – engaged in society as part of the greater good.”

Otherwise, he said, schools and teachers “become just another media source – another talking head, another audio (they) can choose to engage in.”

COVID’s silver linings included stories of students able to interact privately online with their teachers, allowing them to reveal struggles they might not have felt comfortable sharing in front their peers in a classroom.

Principals witnessed “a return to humanness in education” that manifested itself through expressions of patience, grace and flexibility as well as through a commitment to viewing every issue though a social justice lens.

Teachers also grew, either in their starting-from-scratch mastery of Google Meet, Zoom and other platforms, or in their impetus to reassess the curriculum and ensure that it remain robust, relevant and demanding.

“ ‘Never let a good crisis go to waste’ – we really took that to heart,” said Porreca, principal of the private, Catholic and all-girls Regina Dominican High School. “When the entire world is melting down in a global pandemic, does it really matter if you get to every single activity on your learning map?”

Porreca and her team discussed the question of “What is a rigorous curriculum?” and became “rigorous in an entirely new way. We’re grateful for the opportunity to look at all the things we thought we needed, break some stuff open and relook at it.”

An educator for 36 years, Porreca has spent most of her career in public schools.

She arrived at Regina Dominican in 2018, bringing with her a strong foundation in data-driven, growth-focused accountability and transparency – something not mandated by law for private schools in the same way as public schools.

That was a skillset the Adrian Dominican Sisters wanted for the school where 100% of the young women matriculate to college after graduation, she said.

“The concept of data is really at the heart of the work we’re doing here,” she said. “How do we gather the right information? What are we looking at? What evidence helps us? How is it related to the context of school and community? What is the evidence that our students are learning? How can we be very systematic and deliberate in making sure we’re providing the best education possible for our students?”

Porreca, who never had worked at an all-girls school before, is “excited and honored” to serve at a “really vibrant community” and “phenomenal place.” With a small enrollment of 230, Regina Dominican provides personalized attention and support along with challenging coursework.

It also focuses on leadership development, she said, which isn’t only defined as becoming president of the student council or captain of the tennis team.

Research shows that many girls “start to lose their sense of power and autonomy” at age 10, she added,

“Our all-women environment is very empowering,” Porreca said. “Our girls are confident and capable of using their voices, finding ways to improve the world, acting on that and inspiring others.”

For Coleman, a graduate of the high school she now leads, part of the mission is making sure that students earn diplomas – and the Options Program is doing just that.

Launched a few years ago, the initiative typically enrolls between 40 and 50 students.

“It’s an alternative setting for our students who are seniors, or should be seniors, and are off-track for graduation or just don’t fit into the traditional model of high school,” Coleman said. “Our school district purchased a church that was across the street from our high school, and it allows our students to go to school for half the day and work the other half to learn life skills.”

They obtain state IDs. They earn CPR certification. They open bank accounts and learn about money management. They complete the FAFSA. They listen to guest speakers, many of whom become instrumental in their success.

Meanwhile, they sample post-secondary lives and careers that appeal to them, either as paid employees or volunteers.

“One of our kids was interested in being a mortician, so we hooked him up with a local funeral home, and he got that experience. We’ve had kids go into the armed services. We’ve had kids go to our local college. It’s really changed their whole life trajectory,” Coleman said. “There are no boundaries. They get to explore. It’s just, ‘You guys tell us what you want.’ That allows them to enjoy something they’re doing, to pique their interest and, hopefully, they go into that career.”

Participants also are required to create capstone projects that explain how the program has impacted or transformed them.

During the presentation ceremony, they are required to dress in business attire and share their stories either on trifold or PowerPoint displays. Many proudly invite those guest speakers – those now- mentors – to attend.

Coleman considers the program a smart investment in its focus on accelerating students toward positive outcomes rather than simple retention.

“We don’t want it grow, per se, because we don’t want every kid in an alternative program – but we do want it to be successful,” she said. “And, overall, the success has been phenomenal.”

In rural Fulton, where the population is just 3% of the population of Peoria, Schipper nonetheless has a similar goal for the 200 sixth- through eighth-graders in her building: exposure to careers.

Schipper and her team recognize that not all students in their agricultural- and manufacturing-heavy community will pursue college, she said.

At the same time, they work to inject some reality into the conversations. At that age, she said, many of the “tweens” are still talking about becoming movie stars, NBA players and ESPN analysts.

Thanks to the school’s “Career Cruiser” program, and the Clifton StrengthsFinder, students can get a head start on adult lives that not only meet their interests but are achievable.

Children answer the questions asked in the assessment, learn where they excel and receive information that outlines how to build on their gifts.

“It gives the kids three different attributes they have, and it was so spot-on,” Schipper said. “Then, we could talk to them: ‘OK, you’re a people person, so you need to go into a career that deals with people.’ ”

Exposure comes in traditional means, such as career fairs with 16 “clusters” of work areas. “Everybody has to go through all 16 of the clusters with the thought process of, ‘I might want to be this’ and also, ‘I might hear somebody speak and, oh, I might want to do that.’ ”

Yet it also comes in fun ways.

Students participate in a “wax museum” activity where they become statues representing different vocations; other children push pretend buttons to “activate” their classmate-statues, who shine flashlights on their own faces while they talk about what each job entails.

The principal likes that the activity promotes exploration. “I worry that we put pressure on kids way too young,” she said. “I say, ‘You have no idea what you’re going to be, and it’s OK if you change your mind.’ ”

For those who are the college track, but are scared about how they can afford it, Schipper offers reassurance and a good role model: With 30 years in education, 25 of those in administrative roles, the former high school math teacher holds two master’s degrees and her superintendent’s endorsement.

“I tell them, ‘Don’t rule out that school because you think it’s too expensive. You don’t know that they’re going to give you as a financial package,’ ” she said. “Fulton also has quite a few local scholarships, which helps and gives some of our kids a leg up.”

Parker is playing a similar role for her middle-schoolers in DeKalb, where she is establishing several collaborations with NIU and Kishwaukee College.

Huntley Middle School welcomes tutors from NIU Huskie Athletics as well as mentors from NIU’s Center for Black Studies and Latino Resource Center.

“Through these small-group and one-on-one relationships, a lot of our students are getting an insight into the college life, sometimes just through sitting down to have lunch or through tutoring,” Parker said. “It’s a partnership we continue to feed and want to grow.”

During non-COVID times, Huntley buses its eighth-graders to Kishwaukee for three, day-long sessions about the college enrollment process, including FAFSA completion.

Meanwhile, all Huntley faculty and staff are cognizant of talking intentionally to students about their degrees, their alma maters and how they connected “their God-given talents and skills and passions with a career path.”

“We talk to them about how we got here. It’s informational and it’s exploratory,” Parker said.

“The adolescent brain is very much a sponge from age 11 through 14, and very much influenced by their peers and social interactions, so we levy social interactions to just spark something in them,” she added. “Oftentimes, for those who are first-generation, if somebody in a school setting doesn’t talk to them about it, who’s going to? It’s about exposure and planting that seed.”

Carolyn Pluim and Alan Clemens
Carolyn Pluim and Alan Clemens

Planting seeds is indeed the mission of the NIU Marguerite F. Key Fellows Program and its work to promote the long-term growth and vitality of Illinois communities.

Each fellow qualifies for an $1,000 stipend, which can be taken personally or applied programmatically as an investment in the success of the next generation of leadership in the state.

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