St. Michael the Archangel Catholic School in Chicago’s far south side, led by EdD Urban Education Leadership graduate Bridget de la Peña, earned a Polk Leadership Incentive grant to bolster the school’s supplies and increase access to enrollment through scholarships.

The grant, given to 20 schools in the Archdiocese of Chicago, commends schools with strong enrollment trends, solid fiscal management and deep academic growth in low income areas.

de la Peña leads a school facing a number of challenges: tuition pressures in an area of low family income, high teacher turnover and a high rate of violence in the area.  Her years at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Education and her work with Center for Urban Education Leadership coach Kathleen Mayer are boosting her skills to mitigate these problems and develop unique solutions.

With tuition at the school for one child represents about 15% of an average family’s income, de la Peña plans to use the Polk grant to add about $5,000 of scholarship funding to aid area families.  Another $7,000 is being split evenly among the school’s teachers to address supply needs in individual classrooms.  Preschool, early childhood, science and social studies teachers are addressing a major need for hands-on materials for students to work with.

Improving school access and the in-class experience are a part of an overall plan de la Peña has in place to lead the south side school.  With the school’s location and inherent challenges centered in a low-income area, many of St. Michael’s teachers are new to their careers and often are not developing long-term ties with the school.

“My coach [Kathleen Mayer] has said to embrace it and to view our school as a training ground, providing the best coaching for new teachers as possible,” de la Peña said. “I think because of the coaching we’ve had with new teachers, it seems like they are having a better experience this year than in years past, and I get the sense most if not all will be returning next year.”

Peer coaching at St. Michael’s takes on a new look since each class level features only one teacher.  de la Peña says a major focus of her coursework at UIC centered on getting teachers out of their own “bubble” and working to create connections from classroom to classroom, grade to grade.

de la Peña also relies on building partnerships with community resources, in particular with the University of Chicago.  The university’s Center for Elementary Math and Science Education works with St. Michael’s first-year teachers to provide advice and ideas on curricular ideas and lesson planning.

“There is a need for us to continue to grow through outside community partners,” de la Peña said. “Given our high rate of teacher turnover, and the need to coach a large number of teachers, I can’t say enough about having partnerships and well-run professional development sessions.”

Principal de la Pena on teacher turnover in high needs schools