Building Support Systems that Recognize Students’ Humanity
SCHOOLS | August 18, 2021
Building Support Systems that Recognize Students’ Humanity

By Lynn Fields Jr., Principal of Harlan Community Academy

When we held grade-level town hall meetings last year to hear from our students about how the school year was going, there was a young man who took the opportunity to have what felt almost like a one-on-one conversation with me in front of all his peers. He was honest, vulnerable, and unafraid to express his needs. 

He shared that he was the oldest of seven siblings and was also home alone with his nieces, nephews, and little cousins. In essence, he was running a daycare center while also trying to be a student, and it reminded all of us that our students are not just what they accomplish in the classroom. There are distractions and hardships and successes and a wealth of experiences that make them up, and their resilience has given me a lot of hope. 

Peering into our students’ lives in new ways over the past several school years has also helped me solidify my vision for Harlan Community Academy. I want my school to be a safe haven for students, and I want each one of them to have a trusted adult in the building that they can turn to and receive support from. High school is all about navigating what is thrown your way academically and socially to set yourself up for success in the future, and when students have a strong support system, that navigation becomes easier. 

It also becomes easier when there are more opportunities for students to discover what they are passionate about. Of course, we need to continue emphasizing college, but, as I look at the need to reinvigorate some of Chicago’s neighborhoods, I know we can also help students find fulfilling careers as craftsmen or tradesmen. 

As principal, I have a responsibility to encourage my entire building to keep the lines of communication open with students so that we can hear their stories, respond to the challenges they are facing, and answer their questions. I’ve had quite a few conversations with students about the financial aspect of various postsecondary opportunities. When I realized that many of them would be more willing to take out a car loan because of the immediate gratification it would bring, I showed them how pursuing higher education would have far greater payouts for them. 

Conversations like these have been important to me since I was teaching. I was never just an educator, especially with my young men. I was a big brother or an uncle or a close friend. We would talk about their personal dilemmas and aspirations, and some of them who had part-time jobs would even bring me their paychecks so I could explain what the various numbers on them represented. 

Just as our students’ lives encompass so much more than just school, our roles within schools encompass so much more than just letter grades and diplomas. For example, we held both Freshman Connection and Sophomore Connection programs this summer to give our students an opportunity to experience the building and meet each other, showing them that meeting their social-emotional needs is extremely important to all of us. 

Harlan is like an island in the river. Our students’ lives flow unpredictably, but we are here to provide a structure where people are constantly checking in on them, positively motivating them, and giving them the feedback they need to exceed their own expectations for what they can accomplish. 

Someone asking you how you are doing can change your outlook on an entire day, and when you combine enough of those positive interactions together, your school becomes a springboard for student success. When students know that they are not alone and have the support that they need, they will not be afraid to fail. 

While Principal Fields Jr. found his calling in education, he originally worked in finance. Make sure you are ready for the first day of school—August 30, 2021—by visiting