A Conversation with the Principal of ‘Refugee High’
SCHOOLS | August 13, 2021
A Conversation with the Principal of ‘Refugee High’

When Principal Chad Thomas took over Sullivan High School in Rogers Park back in 2013, he knew his previous experiences had equipped him to make a difference in a space with a lot of diversity and an equal amount of challenges. He had spent time at Harper High School in Englewood, Farragut Career Academy in Little Village, and even at a juvenile detention center in Indiana serving kids who were incarcerated. 

He knew that every decision he made as a school leader needed to connect back to viewing his school community’s unique qualities—including speaking over 40 different languages—as assets rather than obstacles. This led the school to create its English Learner (EL) Academy, essentially a school within the school, that allows any student who is learning English to apply to be a student at Sullivan. The school also has a dedicated social worker specifically for its refugee population. 

This summer, a new book—Refugee High: Coming of Age in America—is being released, and it documents the lives of several Sullivan students during the 2017-18 school year, a particularly volatile time to be a refugee in the U.S.

“This book was not only a moment for me to look in the mirror, but it was also an opportunity for me to look in through the window,” said Principal Thomas. “Because I’m so invested in the work that is being done here day-to-day, sometimes you don’t take a step and look back at the landscape. It’s like a dancefloor. As a principal, you’re always on the dancefloor dancing; you’re rarely on the balcony looking down at the dancefloor.” 

Read more about Principal Thomas’ thoughts on the book and his role at Sullivan below.

Did reading the book push you to do anything differently as a school leader? 

More than anything, it’s pushing my leadership to be more inclusive and challenging to think more about what inclusion really means. One example of this is that we got funding to add a mosaic to the school. I tried to lean into the discomfort of relying on easy ways to mimic the successes of the past, and now our cluster students will be leading this project. This mosaic is going to be by them and for them from start to finish. 

What advice would you give to someone reading the book who does not know a lot about Sullivan or education in Chicago? 

I grew up in Mississippi, and my mom ordered and read the book. What people should remember is that our refugee and immigrant children and families are just like all of us. They want the same happiness, love, and support, and the opportunity to do whatever we want to do. That’s what is so great about this country and is something we’ve lost track of. People can use this book as a way to learn a little bit more about the stories of these families, because hearing the stories of others is where empathy starts. 

If you had to sum up the book in one word, what would you pick and why? 

Uplifting. Very rarely do we get a chance to tell the stories of people who don’t speak our own language. We’re telling stories that haven’t been told, and when people read them, it will be extremely uplifting when they connect with them. 

What does it mean to you to be successful in your role as principal? 

Success means listening to my kids, my teachers, my families, and the larger community. When I started here, I knew the community wanted this school to thrive, and it was my job to listen to bring that vision to life. A lot of times we can get our personal agenda involved as leaders, but you need to step back and be selfless for the things the community needs. I often say that I’m a hustler to do everything I possibly can to make Sullivan the best school for my kids. 

We’re just a few weeks away from welcoming students back to Sullivan and schools across Chicago on Monday, August 30. Visit cps.edu/b2s for everything you need for a great first day.