Creating a Strong Vision to Build Relationships with Students and Families
SCHOOLS | August 9, 2021
Creating a Strong Vision to Build Relationships with Students and Families

By Dr. Paul Riskus, Principal of Walt Disney Magnet School

My first day as principal of Disney was March 3, 2020. Becoming a school leader midway through the year is always a challenge because every leader has a different vision for how a school should operate, and you need time and space to communicate your priorities with your school community. In this case, this challenge became even greater when—just two weeks after I stepped into the role—a pandemic sent my students home to learn remotely for the remainder of the year.

I knew the most important thing our school could do would be to stay united. And, even though we couldn’t see each other face-to-face, we needed to continue building relationships with each other.

When I think about the moments that mattered over the past year-and-a-half, I’m convinced that this focus on strengthening our community was exactly what we needed to do. The work ethic of our teachers, the grace of our families, and the perseverance of our administrative team fit together like puzzle pieces, and I am extremely grateful for each member of the Disney family. I’ll never forget how powerful it was to see those attributes come together when we celebrated our kindergarten and eighth-grade graduates at the end of the year, even with the restrictions posed by COVID-19. 

We also found creative ways to build community that connected back to learning. To encourage our students to spend more time on an academic resource that we use called IXL, we held a staff basketball game that we live-streamed for all of our students and families to watch. 

Now that we’re just a few weeks away from welcoming students back to Disney for the new school year, we’re really excited about our instructional vision that is rooted in collaboration between students to help them think critically and tackle complex problems. There are several key pieces that we’ve been refining to bring this vision to life. 

The first is our school’s identity as a fine and performing arts school. Our administrative team has been working closely with our educators to ensure that each of them is well-equipped to integrate the arts into their instruction to engage students and enhance their learning. I formerly taught science, a subject that welcomes the arts in everything from using dance and movement to teach velocity and acceleration to drawing and painting when teaching the composition of an atom. 

I’m also really excited about the district’s focus on after-school programs for the upcoming year. We’ll be able to offer everything from tutoring to sports to mentorship groups to even more opportunities to expose our students to the arts. 

Finally, we have big goals for our school’s culture and climate. Disney draws diverse students from across Chicago, so we want to ensure that everything we are doing is culturally responsive and student-led. This may lead to some difficult discussions, but challenging our own assumptions about our students is critical to continuing to grow in equitable ways. 

Accomplishing big goals requires school stakeholders being part of the change process. I feel like one of the most important jobs I have as a principal is to encourage and support others in the school community to take on leadership roles that benefit the whole school. It is empowering to witness individuals being part of the change they want to see. Experiencing our community work together in this way is something I feel humbled to be a part of.

Before entering education, Principal Riskus initially planned to become a doctor. He started his teaching career at Urban Prep Academy in Bronzeville, and recently completed his Ed.D. from the University of Illinois at Chicago, a program that he believes provided him with the mentoring and coaching that he needed to be successful. Have any questions about the upcoming school year? Visit