SCHOOLS | October 8, 2021
With more than 20 years at Woodlawn Community Elementary School under her belt, Principal LoWanda Bell describes her school as a second home. She’s worked hard to cultivate a familial culture between staff and students rooted in all members of the school community caring about each other and being invested in their accomplishments.
“We see the culture continue to grow each year with our community becoming more involved, understanding, and empathetic with each other,” she said. “The closeness that we all have makes it an even better environment. Our go-to word 99 percent of the time is respect. As long as you’re respecting others—and yourself—we’ll move forward.”
Principal Bell’s CPS career started about 30 years ago at Scott Joplin Elementary as a special education teacher. This role solidified her passion for helping students grow academically, especially as readers, and it led her to eventually join the district’s former Office of Accountability to work with multiple schools on rolling out a new instructional model to help students develop literacy skills.
Woodlawn was one of the schools that she served starting back in 1999, and she joined the school full-time a few years later. Since then, she’s been a special education teacher, lead teacher, assistant principal, and has been the school’s principal for the past eight years.
When she thinks about the impact that she’s made in the Woodlawn community, her mind goes back to 1999.
“In my first month working with Woodlawn, I had a kindergarten teacher who was not willing to try the instructional model that I was helping roll out. When she would see me come into the building, she would always close her door,” she said. “Then, one day, not only did she open her door, she invited me into her classroom. She told me that her students were reading better than they ever had before.”
Leadership is a quality that Principal Bell thinks other people see in her often before she sees it in herself. When she was starting her career as a teacher, she acknowledges that special education students were viewed as only “trainable” rather than being capable of learning in the same ways as their peers. Her efforts led to everything from kindergarten students reading at a second-grade level to all 20 of the schools that her team in the Office of Accountability worked with showing academic improvement.
“Every child is supposed to learn and every child has to be better when they leave you than they were when they came in,” she said. “It’s not enough to say that they wouldn’t learn or make an excuse. If they haven’t grown, I have failed them. And I’m not in the business of failing students.”
She takes every opportunity she can to build relationships with Woodlawn students, from doing lunch duty to participating in afterschool programs to interacting with them in the hallway. If she sees a student working on their homework, she’ll sit with them not only to get a sense of how they are doing academically, but to also ensure that they are doing well socially and emotionally.
“One of my biggest goals is to make sure that every student is able to continue through the year and be safe—not just from COVID, but mentally and emotionally as well,” she said. “We’re here to protect them and make sure they know that our school is still the same safe and welcoming place that it was before the pandemic.”
Because Woodlawn is a smaller school, Principal Bell says that it’s a place where every member of the team needs to be a leader in some capacity. This dynamic means that she is always fielding ideas from her teachers and staff, and she’s usually willing to try new things, as long as the suggestion is for the benefit of the students.
“Just the other day, I was observing a class, and, as I was leaving, the teacher said: ‘Are you ready for Flocabulary?’ and I jokingly scoffed and the teacher started laughing,” she said. “They know I want to stay and watch the students because these tools are so awesome.”
Not only is Principal Bell helping her staff develop into leaders, she continues to grow by working closely with her fellow principals. Near the beginning of the pandemic, her former Network Chief, Felicia Sanders, created teams of principals to connect with each other through a book club. Her group, which consists of other elementary school principals from the South Side, has remained strong and continues to support each other on a daily basis.
“This group is one of the best parts of being a principal right now. We share everything with each other, remind each other of assignments that we have due, and check in with each other all the time,” she said. “I know that if I need something, I have immediate support. We always say that this is going to go down as Chief Sanders’ best accomplishment of her career.”
Woodlawn serves students through sixth grade, so, in lieu of a typical eighth-grade graduation, the school holds a “rites of passage” ceremony where students share what they have learned about themselves and their goals for the future. For Principal Bell, this event symbolizes the role that she and her staff plays in supporting students to exceed expectations.
“Every year, I tell my students that they have a foundation, and they know who they are, and that they can always come back home,” she said. “I tell them that they are going to encounter situations that they feel like they can’t get through, but they already have the strength they need to face those challenges.”
Principal Bell has certainly had to overcome challenges of her own during her time in CPS, but, when she sums it all up, she’s found that in helping students to grow both inside and outside of the classroom, she’s grown too.
“I would have never put myself in the principal’s chair, and my personal growth, interactions with students and parents, and now my ability to help other people grow is just awesome to me. It’s a passion of mine that everyone I encounter is better after meeting me,” she said. “My journey at Woodlawn has been phenomenal in every sense of the word.”