SCHOOLS | July 28, 2020
Note: Photos for this story were taken in February and March of 2020. Its posting was rescheduled from the past school year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Recent graduate Serenity D. fit a lot into her eight years at Emmett Louis Till Math and Science Academy in Woodlawn. She was on the basketball team, volleyball team, cheerleading squad, and part of the drama club. In the classroom, she discovered her passion for math—taking on advanced topics like trigonometry as an eighth-grade student—and was consistently on the honor roll. While Serenity is leaving a school that has blossomed into a model on the South Side, it didn’t always have that reputation. As a student whose own progress has contributed to the school’s academic growth, she believes that a change in school culture has led Till to be more successful than ever before.
“I’m going to remember how the teachers cared for the students at Till, and how Principal Peoples worked with the students on what we wanted for the school,” said Serenity. “Leaving is both a win and a loss. I’m happy I made it, but I know I’ll miss all the teachers. Looking back on where Till was when I was in third grade, I don’t think many people thought we would be where we are now.”
When Principal Terea Peoples took over Till in 2015, creating a supportive environment rooted in a sense of togetherness was one of her top priorities. Her prior experiences were mostly at the high school level, having started her career as a high school English teacher and then working as an assistant principal at several South Side high schools. She believes that developing leadership skills at a high school is one of the best ways to prepare to lead an elementary school.
“With high school, there are so many moving parts so you learn to create systems, procedures, and processes to manage and organize your responsibilities,” said Principal Peoples. “The high school perspective also pushes me to ensure that my students are exposed to the skills they need—hard work, determination, tenacity, and resilience—for success not just in high school but in college and their careers.”
To make sure students graduate with these key skills, Principal Peoples has focused on equity and growth. This has meant making Till more inclusive for diverse learners and providing teachers with additional professional development opportunities.
She has also relied on several partnerships to give students a greater sense of school pride. A few years ago, a partnership with the YWCA led to the creation of a community garden to bring fresh produce and nutrition classes to the Woodlawn neighborhood. That partnership eventually led to the school receiving a refurbished gymnasium, parent resource room, and student peace center from the National Basketball Association in February.
When leading a school, Principal Peoples believes you need to approach every opportunity or decision with equity in mind.
“Equity ensures that all students have access and opportunities to the resources and information that is needed to become successful,” said Principal Peoples. “It has led to academic attainment marks that keep moving up and gets us closer to more and more students being prepared for life after Till.”
As Till continues to set the standard for education in Woodlawn, Principal Peoples knows that equity cannot be contained to just her office and her way of thinking. It needs to find its way into every classroom as well. That’s why she prioritizes learning from her teachers and ensuring that everyone is able to leave a positive mark on the school’s culture. Veteran educator Mr. Tracey Poole, who has been at Till for nearly 20 years, notes that Principal Peoples’ vision and leadership have helped him grow in his role as a middle school English teacher. He views his job as solidifying an academic foundation that will support his students for many years to come.
“What’s important to me is that my students become lifelong learners,” said Mr. Poole. “I don’t just teach reading. I teach students skills they can apply anywhere and have a toolkit to pull from whenever they need it.”
Mr. Poole and the rest of the staff use the term all green everything to describe how Till has transformed into a model school with academic progress that other schools can learn from. Students like Serenity are graduating from a school that has fully prepared them to be successful. And, when they face challenges in the future, they’ll be able to draw upon their Till education to keep pushing forward.
“Every teacher wants to make a difference and be remembered,” said Mr. Poole. “I hope my students have at least one moment down the line when they think back and say: ‘Mr. Poole taught me that.’”