Bowen High School towers above the two-story single-family homes surrounding the school in the neighborhood of South Chicago. Just two blocks from the high concrete walls of the Chicago Skyway, the four-story brick building casts an imposing presence on a bitterly cold winter day.
The school’s exterior may not reflect it, but inside the 104-year-old building, principal Nia Abdullah is strategically crafting a warm and inviting environment for African American males geared to push for excellence both academically and behaviorally.
“We have to accept them as they are and be able to hold them accountable as well at the same time,” Abdullah said. “We need to know exactly what they need academically but support them regardless of how they come to us.”
Abdullah, EdD Urban Education Leadership candidate at the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Education slated to graduate in spring 2014, was featured in a symposium February 15 at the University of Chicago on “Black Young Men in America: Rising above Social and Racial Prejudice, Trauma, and Educational Disparities,” with a focus on research and strategies for supporting developing Black adolescent males. She shared with the symposium the challenges she faces at Bowen as well as the strategies she is implementing to nurture South Chicago Black high schoolers.
Adbullah focused on how educators can engage with high schoolers from the ground level in school to build a path towards lifelong success, starting out with preparedness for higher education. At Bowen, Abdullah is leading her teachers to focus on best practices to diagnose what their students need academically and behaviorally and designing support services to meet those needs.
On the behavior front, many of Bowen’s students have experienced trauma and abuse in their childhood. Abdullah says her teachers and staff work to identify teens who may not directly share their experiences, and channel them towards counseling services for support. The goal is to ensure teens feel comfortable in the school environment before addressing academic needs.
To achieve those ends, Abdullah has contracted a full-time social worker as well as a part-time Chicago Public Schools social worker and two counselors. Working with the assistant principal, this team examines referrals from teachers and seeks to identify at-risk students for counseling to address trauma, reactive anger, substance abuse and grief.
From a classroom perspective, Abdullah is working to improve the school’s capacity to pinpoint the grade level status of students across subjects. Teachers at Bowen are working to better differentiate instruction for students at different learning levels in a single subject classroom. This instructional capacity is being built within the framework of Common Core state standards.
“We’re seeking to create professional learning communities that are meeting the needs of the adults in the building so they can do their work better,” Abdullah said. “When consistently focusing on what we need to do better to meet the needs of our students, we think of what adults will do to support our students and be successful.”
Abdullah credits the organizational and structural models she learned in the EdD Urban Education
Leadership program at the UIC College of Education as effective tools in building teacher and staff capacity to serve students. Working with Center for Urban Education Leadership coach Cynthia Barron, PhD, Abdullah has focused on creating a school-wide organization that meets the needs of all constituents in the building, geared towards ensuring all adults understand what specific needs of students need to be met.
“Every week [Dr. Barron] is asking me to think about what I am going to do the next week to meet the needs of our students,” Abdullah said. “Do we have a coherent instructional program, and if we don’t, what will I do as a leader in order to make sure that one is in place?”
Abdullah’s next challenge is to craft the school’s restorative justice program. African American and Latino students are historically overrepresented among the population of suspended students in CPS. To address this, Abdullah started a peer jury process in January 2014 and is instituting a peace mediation process that instills a six-step method of conflict resolution.