Seeing the Impact of Empowering Students through Mentorship
SCHOOLS | August 24, 2021
Seeing the Impact of Empowering Students through Mentorship

By Yalil Nieves, Principal of Mary Gage Peterson Elementary School

When people ask me why I wanted to go into education, I tend to bring up sixth grade. My family immigrated to Chicago from Panama that year, and I entered a bilingual education program in CPS. While, of course, it was a difficult transition to be thrown into a new world with new norms and a new language, my teachers were highly collaborative and thought outside the box when it came to supporting my needs. 

I felt like they really cared about me as an individual, and they had a genuine desire to partner with my mom and make us aware of the services that could be provided to our family. Those efforts made a huge difference over the next few years; by eighth grade, my English had progressed enough to transition into an English-only program, and I graduated from middle school as the valedictorian. 

In high school, I continued to enjoy learning, but I missed the one-on-one attention that I had grown accustomed to receiving from my middle school teachers. Those differences between middle and high school impacted my view of what students need to be successful. When I became a high school history teacher, I focused on creating engaging lessons that would connect students to the content. 

It was the right place to start, but I realized that a lot of my students were entering my classes really struggling with basic reading skills. So, I went back to school and got a reading specialist degree so I could be better positioned to support and mentor my students. 

Now that I’m a school principal, I feel responsible for shaping my students into college graduates, community leaders, and cultural ambassadors. While there wasn’t a huge Panamanian community when I came here, what I brought to the classroom was honored and my experiences were valued. 

Our kids are powerhouses. They come to us with so much knowledge and very developed skill sets and modes of thinking, and we need to tap into those by empowering them with the skills they need to be successful: critical thinking, self-motivation, collaboration, and empathy. 

Here at Peterson, we are really excited about our student voice committee that meets regularly to discuss issues that are impacting their community and how they want to be part of the solution. We also have an awesome mentoring program that takes place during school hours where our middle school students check in with younger mentees. 

With school about to start, these programs are just a small part of our holistic approach to provide the academic and social-emotional support necessary for students to thrive, while creating a supportive community that embraces each other regardless of what is happening. 

My background as a history teacher pushes me to encourage our entire school community to fight against our biases, whether they appear in our curriculum, in our neighborhood, or in society as a whole. Doing our jobs well means creating opportunities for our students and positioning them to make their own choices rather than allowing their circumstances to make the choices for them. 

Mentorship means amplifying the voices of others. So often, we break our heads over “How do we go about this?” or “How do we ensure this happens?” when the answer all along is going back to our students and asking them: “How would you go about this situation?” 

Teachers believing in my voice changed my entire life, and that gives me the comfort to know that I don’t need to have all the answers or a solution for everything, even as a principal. Instead, I can create spaces that give a voice to my students to empower the community that we serve. 

Principal Nieves has been at Peterson Elementary since it was her assignment as a resident principal through the New Leaders program. Make sure you are ready for the first day of school—August 30, 2021—by visiting