SCHOOLS | March 16, 2021
When she became the principal of Jose de Diego Community Academy in the summer of 2015, Dr. Jackie Menoni wanted to kick off the new school year and her principalship on a high note. So, she organized a back-to-school barbecue that drew in hundreds of students and their families. Now, six years later, a celebration on the Friday before a new school year has become part of the school’s identity.
“Being able to look around and see all these stakeholder groups together at once engaging in pure joy is just fun,” said Dr. Menoni. “And being an elementary school principal is supposed to be fun. When I capture those moments, it makes my heart smile.”
De Diego first appeared on Dr. Menoni’s radar when she was completing her one-year resident principalship across the street at Clemente High School. As a former elementary school teacher, she initially envisioned being a resident principal at an elementary school. However, she decided to gain experience with grade levels that she was unfamiliar with.
“I’ll never forget the welcome address from the principal at Clemente when I visited for the first time. She talked about the urgency between high school and college life and the working world, and how we had no excuse but to help children achieve,” said Dr. Menoni. “Her passion for the work was really striking, and my immediate thought was that I needed to be there doing that work with her.”
Not only did her year at Clemente teach her about the importance of preparing students from high school onward, it also highlighted the necessity of making sure students leave elementary school fully prepared for high school. Dr. Menoni explains that gaps in reading comprehension can be particularly crippling for high school students, so she has been focused on providing a tightly aligned reading curriculum for grades K-8 that includes rigorous texts and targeted support through small group instruction.
Her school has also embraced personalized learning. When it comes to learning environments, this means big, open classrooms and a lack of reliance on desks. In terms of reading instruction, it means that every teacher is required to provide students with a menu of options that they can use to guide their learning.
“The learning menu gives students some autonomy around how they use their time when they’re not in front of the teacher,” said Dr. Menoni. “With the emphasis on small group instruction, that means there’s some time where they are on their own in the classroom or at home this year.”
Earlier this month, Dr. Menoni was one of three CPS principals to be named a finalist for the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Leadership. She says that receiving the award is a reflection of the progress the school has made in the past six years, which she says is due to strong collaboration between staff members when carrying out the “nitty-gritty” work of rebuilding the school’s instructional leadership team, improving culture and climate, and re-engaging parents and the Local School Council.
Dr. Menoni believes in the power of distributed leadership, something that has become even more important during remote learning this school year.
“I’ve had to be more comfortable in releasing full autonomy and saying: I don’t know what to do,” said Dr. Menoni. “My toolbox essentially went away during the pandemic, which meant that I needed to approach problems with the virtual classroom experience by accepting that I don’t always know the answer and need to lean on my teachers to help me understand what we can do.”
This trust in her staff has been maintained through the return to in-person learning, and Dr. Menoni has been blown away by how things have gone so far. Her art teacher made goodie bags for her students filled with sketchbooks, paints, and other supplies. Other teachers have thought creatively about how to provide subjects like drama, sexual education, and social-emotional learning while still prioritizing safety.
In her words, her school feels like it is breathing life again. And reopening her school is just the latest reminder of one the most important lessons she has learned as a leader: no crisis is permanent.
“I laugh when I look back at screenshots of what stressed me out months ago because they don’t seem nearly as scary as they did in that moment,” said Dr. Menoni. “Being a principal is all about remembering that tomorrow will be a different day of new things to navigate, and it’s all about finding the joy in between. The kids are what make this job phenomenal. It took 30 seconds to fall back in love with having kids in the building.”
Check out the full list of CPS Golden Apple finalists here!