Creating a Culture at Deneen School Of Excellence that Reignites Learning
SCHOOLS | August 31, 2021
Creating a Culture at Deneen School Of Excellence that Reignites Learning

One of Mr. Courtland Stokes’ first memories as a CPS employee involved a brutal snowstorm. When he arrived at the school building, he felt a sense of unity with the other staff members. Everyone had the same thing on their mind—going the extra mile to get ready for students to come in and learn. Now, nearly a decade later, he believes that going above and beyond to serve students truly makes a difference in their lives. 

“Seeing students come back after they’ve graduated eighth grade and telling us how we’ve impacted them and what they learned from the lessons we taught them is just amazing,” he said. “The work we do every day impacts students, and I want them to be able to look back and know that we helped them become better individuals and contribute to their community and the world at large.” 

Mr. Stokes has served several different schools on Chicago’s South Side; his current role is as the school culture coordinator at Deneen School of Excellence, where he’s been working since 2017. He explains that he returns year after year because of incredible leadership and a set of core values that have helped the school maintain high levels of academic success. 

“At Deneen, we operate with respect, responsibility, integrity, and acting and speaking with fairness and thoughtfulness,” he said. “We also have courage, take risks, and push past adversity and peer pressure. And of course, we focus on excellence.” 

Mr. Stokes allows these values to guide his work in setting high expectations for his students. He wants them to develop a confidence that will broaden their perspective beyond the familiar corners of their neighborhood (71st and State, 69th and Wabash) and that will equip them to face challenges later in life. 

Over the years, he has realized that these expectations need to be coupled with a school culture that is restorative and student-centered. He describes this shift as “moving from hammer to handshake.” This allows students to view him as a disciplinarian, but also as someone who they can turn to when they need support.

“I would say that every student who knows me loves me because my door is always open,” he said. “They know that I am going to be consistent and firm, but, at the same time, I’m not going to be overly punitive. What I want is for the student to understand what they did and be ready to rejoin our community as a better version of themself.” 

Just like the snowstorm from his first year as a CPS employee, Mr. Stokes views the time students have spent away from their classrooms as a potential deterrent that staff must be prepared to address. 

“The biggest focus for us at Deneen is finding ways to re-engage our students in learning,” he said. “We have a community that we’ve built, but we were limited in how we could feel that sense of community virtually. We’ve persevered through that, and now we need to make learning interesting and fun and get our kids excited about coming to school every day.”

Mr. Stokes believes that this engagement needs to start with gaining a deeper understanding of each student’s needs, especially at the social-emotional level. He believes that each staff member should reflect on their experiences from throughout the pandemic to create new and improved practices that center on equity, student voice, and culturally relevant instruction. 

“I’ve found a home here at Deneen and I want to keep us moving ahead and achieving,” he said. “I’m ready to have a great school year and see if I’m in shape once I start running around these hallways again!”