SCHOOLS | July 16, 2020
Note: Photos for this story were taken on February 27, 2020.
When Principal Marla Elitzer was working as a teacher at Irma C. Ruiz Elementary School in the Heart of Chicago back in the 1990s, her principal would always ask her: “Where are your folders?” She was confused at first, but she soon realized the folders were graduate school admission packets, and her principal was really asking her about transitioning into leadership.
Principal Elitzer wasn’t sure if she wanted to leave her role as a teacher. As one of Ruiz’s founding teachers, she had grown to love working in the classroom year after year. However, after thinking about the hundreds of students she could impact as a school leader, she became the school’s assistant principal in 2003.
“Looking back to when I was just starting out as an administrator, I learned that it’s okay to try new things and have other people lead,” said Principal Elitzer. “If teachers want to try something, I’ll make sure their approach is data-informed and thought out and then fully trust them to do good work.”
After more than a decade as assistant principal, Principal Elitzer left Ruiz to become the principal at another Southwest Side elementary school. Here, she developed a strong bond with Ms. Vauncia Allen, her assistant principal. When the principal position at Ruiz opened up a few years later, she took the job and brought AP Allen with her.
“With Marla, there’s always been an appreciation that I can be me and possess qualities that are valued,” said AP Allen. “At the same time, there’s a like-mindedness between us where the kids are always our priority.”
Over the past few years, this student-centered approach to leadership has led to a tightened focus on social and emotional learning and cultivating a trauma-informed school culture. AP Allen wrote several grants that led to the school starting a partnership with Lurie Children’s Hospital and working with a restorative practice coach.
Both women also prioritize working with families and the community. When Ruiz celebrated its 30th anniversary earlier this year, the school created an alumni hallway to feature the photos of nearly every graduate—many of whom still live in the neighborhood. And even though the Class of 2020 wasn’t able to have a traditional graduation, Ruiz staff worked together to create a special virtual graduation for them.
“The culture at Ruiz is wonderful because everyone is on board together,” said Principal Elitzer. “Students know there’s someone here they can count on, and we’re so blessed that our parents are entrusting us to make sure these 600 babies are safe and learning.”
Having started her career at Armstrong Elementary in Rogers Park—one of the most diverse schools in the city—AP Allen learned the importance of giving all students a platform to speak up and share their perspectives. She always considered herself a shy and quiet student and sometimes still reminds herself not to suppress her own thoughts and opinions. Now as a school leader, she’s found that listening and helping students put their ideas into words is how you build their confidence both in and out of the classroom.
“When I have conversations with students in my office, they’re often curious and want to know what my job is,” said AP Allen. “On top of being an image—not saying the perfect image all the time—being approachable and talking with them helps them discover more about their interests.”
To foster student growth further, Ruiz created its first-ever Student Voice Committee during the 2019–20 school year. Before CPS transitioned to remote learning, the committee had about 15 members who were tasked with creating a mission statement and regularly meeting with Principal Elitzer and AP Allen to talk about ways to positively impact the school community.
“Our work on student voice connects back to the idea that no one is average and everyone has their strengths,” said Principal Elitzer. “There might be some students who are not as vocal or as popular who can be great leaders.”
Though at first neither Principal Elitzer nor AP Allen were entirely convinced that leadership was the right path, knowing they are helping mold future problem solvers is extremely gratifying for them. On top of helping students become responsible and respectful leaders, they’re also having a lot of fun together.
“Every day is exhilarating, exciting, and different, and it’s okay if the day doesn’t go as planned because you always have the kids in mind,” said Principal Elitzer. “At the end, you look at the clock and think: ‘Wow, we just did that.’”