What’s Working: A Principal’s Perspective From A 'Student-Ready' School

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Part of my job as the head of United States Program at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation is working with our team to learn all we can about what’s working in schools and what larger lessons can be gleaned from those successes. In addition to this being deeply rewarding (and often fun!) work, it’s also very busy, because there are schools doing amazing work all over the country. Earlier this month, I had the privilege of spending some time talking to the principal of one such school.

Victor Iturralde is the founding principal of Solorio Academy High School in Chicago. Solorio has been recognized as a Silver Medal School by U.S. News & World Report and was rated one of the Top 20 Public High Schools in Chicago by Chicago Magazine. In fact, while Chicago Public Schools are improving – Chicago is the second-fastest improving district in the country – Solorio is improving even faster: outpacing the district averages across virtually every measure, including graduation rate, college enrollment rate, and college persistence rate. It is also a neighborhood school in a high-poverty area serving 98% minority students and many undocumented students.

I connected with Principal Iturralde because I wanted to hear from him about how they’ve made these gains – what systems they’ve put in place and about the barriers they’ve had to overcome. I was so glad I did, because his insights into how they’ve supported their teachers and created leadership opportunities for them, how they use data to improve instruction, and how they’ve built a culture of high expectations are lessons I think any school can learn from – particularly as we head back to school for a new school year. Solorio is the type of school I like to think of as “student-ready” – that is, ready to meet each and every student where they are and do everything they can to help each student reach their full potential.

Our conversation below has been edited for length and clarity, but I hope you’ll read on and see how Solorio has moved the needle for their students and their community.

You were the founding principal of Solorio when it opened in 2010. What were some of the challenges you faced when opening the school? How did you address them?

Principal Iturralde: The first challenge was the lack of time to prepare. Just two months before the school was supposed to open, there were concerns that the school wouldn’t be ready. So, The Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) was brought in to help because they’d had experience opening and managing schools – they manage over 30 schools here in the Chicago Public School District.

AUSL’s executive director and management team were great mentors for me and had opened schools in Chicago.They were with me during the summer before we opened and things came into place quickly. Fortunately, we opened the school with 300 freshmen and were going to phase classes in – so we weren’t trying to put up grades 9-12 at the start.

I never thought I would come to Solorio, but I was drawn in because I lived on the Southwest side – in a largely Latino community. I’m Mexican-American myself, and when I worked at a very high performing school on the other side of the city, I always thought “I want to learn how to run a school like this so I can come back and serve my people, my community.” When the Solorio opportunity opened up, I felt like it made sense. I talked it over with my wife and I accepted the challenge.

The other challenge we faced is common in large, urban areas, and that is poverty and low achievement. There’s almost a sense that these students have been written off, and we needed to come together as a community and change the outlook. Because Chicago has such a large population of Mexican immigrants, not integrating them into the economy is really problematic. Latinos have the lowest percentage of bachelor degree attainment of any group – especially Mexican males, who have the lowest attainment of any group. And because of circumstances a lot of them choose to go into the workforce at a very early age. So, we knew we had our work cut out for us.

We created this vision that says “Hey, we’re going to be focused on getting our students ready for college.” We had to support programs in middle school and high school that prepare students to complete college, and we had to focus on educating parents on the importance of college, and provide assistance with navigating the whole college application process.

We have to make sure that we're not just equipping students with the knowledge, the skills, and the discipline they’ll need not to get to college, but to be successful in college, so they can graduate college, and then come back and help their Mom, and Dad, and younger siblings. That way, we can have an impact, one student at a time, one family at a time, one neighborhood at a time. Our work impacts the entire community.

Chicago Public Schools (CPS) is the second fastest-improving district in the country, and Solorio is performing above the CPS average in virtually every measure (including selective enrollment schools) – attendance, on-track-to-graduation rates, 4-year graduation rates, and college enrollment and persistence rates. What has been the secret to your success? What are the approaches you think have distinguished Solorio from other schools in the district?

Principal Iturralde: When we opened the school, one of the things I challenged our staff with was having them reflect on their high school experience. What stood out in their minds? What activities, or sports? What left an impression on them? And then I challenged them to recreate that for our students, because our students deserve no less. They took me up on that challenge.

We have a strong cultural climate. There is a lot of school pride, and we try to not just do well in one area, but across academics, athletics, marching band, and other extra curriculars.

We also have very collaborative teachers. About a third of our teachers graduated from AUSL’s teacher training residency – a year-long residency based on the medical residency model – so we have trained teachers who work together and we have opportunities for them to show leadership. There are department heads and “cluster leads,” which are each department’s own instructional experts. They are the ones who become experts in structure and help the department with the work they are doing.

We’ve also created systems to support new teachers. We have a high-performing staff, and when we have a new teacher arrive they are assigned a “culture broker” – that’s somebody that shows them the ropes, from where the copier is, to how they talk to parents about certain issues, to how to use different systems we have set up in the school. That has worked out really well. And we also provide instructional coaching so that no teachers are thrown in without support. The coach checks in at least once a week or a couple of times a week for first or second-year teachers, and provides them with some coaching and support.

And there are a lot of school-level supports here. We have high-quality professional development that’s coherent and empowers teachers as leaders in the building. We have a P.D. team that is a group of teachers that works on planning out the professional development for the year and delivers it to their colleagues. It means a lot more sometimes when it’s coming from your colleagues instead of the administration. That also allows teachers to get leadership experience at the same time.

That sounds like such a great environment. It’s inspiring to hear how teachers are working together as teams and getting the supports they need both from the administration and each other.

Principal Iturralde: Another support we provide is in data coaching. One of the things we started a few years ago that has been really promising was focusing on knowing the data of the students and using that to drive instruction. When we have data, it’s not going to be useful unless you know what to do with it, so we have more experienced teachers who work as data coaches. AUSL also provides support and training around using the data.

We also want our students to know their own data. We created a campaign called “Know Your Numbers” because we thought students should know what their attendance number is, they should know their GPA, their SAT or ACT score, and they should be thinking about their extra-curriculars and how those show up on their college resumes. Every five weeks, students get a progress report so they can see where they are, and they can set goals and try to improve. Our expectation is that they’ll know how they are doing and they’ll know that the end goal is to get them to a higher college-selectivity level.

We put a lot of emphasis on attendance, because studies show how important it is for freshmen to show up and be on track. Every other week, we look at freshman and who are the high fliers and which students are struggling, and often the ones who are off-track are the ones with below-average attendance. When you’re a student and you’ve missed a couple of days in a week, you’re going to be stopped by half-a-dozen people and they are going to ask what’s going on. Using that type of data has really made a difference, because it doesn't matter how great your instruction is if the student’s not sitting in that seat in front of that teacher.

I love the idea of empowering students with their own data. That’s so important – that they really “own” their learning and have a clear view of how it translates into their options after high school. Is there anything else about Solorio you think it’s important for people to understand? Anything you would share with other school leaders?

Principal Iturralde: Well, there is plenty of work left to do. In addition to maintaining and building on the progress we’ve already made, there are other challenges we have to address. For example, we have a large number of undocumented students who don’t qualify for FAFSA. So, we’ve hired an expert college coach to help them understand their options and navigate through the whole process.

We also need to continue to find role models and mentors for our students, particularly people of color that can help partner with us to help our students, to give them the exposure that they need. They need more people in their lives telling them that they can do it, they can be successful in college and beyond.

And to other school leaders, I’d just say two things. First, don’t be afraid to surround yourself with people that are smarter than you. My administrative team is exactly that, as well as innovative and energetic.

The other bit of advice is just that this work takes time. We’ve worked really hard, and it took so long for people to notice. I kept praising my staff all the time, saying “Look, we’re doing great. We’re knocking it out of the park!” But it took some time and then we were in Chicago Magazine’s top 20 public high schools, we’ve earned the U.S. News & World Report’s silver medal. We're finally starting to get noticed, which is extremely gratifying for me, for the teachers and staff, and students, and parents, because they've worked so hard to get to the point.

Thank you so much for your time, Victor. Congratulations on Solorio’s success, and we wish you the best of luck in this coming school year.

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