Retiring principal reflects on 18 years at Healy

Print More

In November, Beverly Tunney, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, retired after 37 years as a teacher and administrator in the Chicago public schools. For the last 18 years, she had been principal of Healy Elementary School in Bridgeport. During that time, student performance improved in all subjects and grades. Eighth-grade scores on the reading section of the Iowa Test of Basic Skills increased almost two grade levels, bringing the average to the national norm. The percentage of 8th-graders exceeding the national average in math rose from 38 percent in 1990 to 57 percent in 1995. Tunney’s comments below were excerpted from an interview conducted by John Simmons, president of the management consulting firm Participation Associates, and Sarah Nordgren, a Chicago journalist who writes about children’s issues.

The loss of clout

When I was named principal in 1978, Healy was 65 percent white and 35 percent Hispanic. At that time, families placed a low priority on education, primarily because the school is located in Chicago’s 11th Ward, longtime home to several of Chicago’s previous mayors including Edward J. Kelly, Richard J. Daley and Michael Bilandic. Political jobs were readily available to 11th Ward residents, and children knew that garbage collectors earned as much money as teachers. When Jane Byrne became mayor, the scene changed. Political jobs were no longer taken for granted.

Other changes in education at Healy occurred because of a great immigration here from Hong Kong and China. Chinatown could not house all of the new residents, and Bridgeport, on its southern border, was a natural place for immigrants to settle.

In 1978, most teachers were products of the Catholic school system. All teachers bring their own experiences to a classroom and, thus, Healy teachers were stern disciplinarians, and classrooms were tightly controlled. Desks and chairs were arranged uniformly, six to eight rows, six or eight desks deep. Most of the teaching was the didactic, lecture type.

I am a product of very different teaching styles. Even 30 years ago, I did not have rows of chairs in my classroom. I realized early on that if you haven’t experienced anything different, you cannot bring it to your classroom. Thus, when hiring teachers, it is important to look for those who have a rich background—those who have had happy experiences as students.

Making change

You can tell people what you want forever and not ever get it. When the classroom door is closed, the teachers can do whatever they want. What a principal needs to do is create a climate that encourages teachers to explore and be creative. You then recognize creativity in a way that does not ostracize a teacher from the rest of the faculty. Everything has to be done very discretely.

We all have something to contribute to the lives of students, and we each do it differently. Over the nine-year period of elementary school, students should obtain a good education and be exposed to some teachers who look at things in new ways. As a principal, I was not interested in lock-step teaching, but I did want to make sure teachers were very aware of my expectations.

Life is a process of adjusting to people, and children should be exposed to different kinds.

When I came to Healy, students were reading below grade level. In analyzing why, I discovered that teachers had low expectations for their students, and that they weren’t necessarily aware of student progress—or lack of it. This was unacceptable, so I instituted a process for profiling each student in school.

In the beginning, I compiled the information myself, since we didn’t have computers. I developed a form that listed a student’s age, grade level, reading level, Iowa scores for the past four years in reading and math, and enrollment in any kind of special education or bilingual program. In the comments column of the form, I showed a student’s last evaluation for special ed and bilingual language skills.

Teachers could then easily see, for example, if a child was reading a year below grade level, and this would serve as a red flag that we needed to do something with this student. We began to think about one year’s growth in one year’s teaching. I needed to do something that would get teachers to stay on task. From my own experience as a teacher, I knew that pacing was the most difficult part of my first year. How much material did we need to cover? So we mapped it in 10-week periods. Then we could see if we were on target.

The profiling forms also gave parents a bird’s-eye view of their children’s progress. If a child’s math scores were low, for example, we needed to develop intervention strategies. How much time did this student work on math at home?

Teachers also gave me monthly reports on students’ reading progress, indicating movement. If the movement was upward, that was great. If we saw a student moving downward, we questioned what we should do. Was there something going on in their family that was keeping this student from being successful, and what kind of service could we give?

Another problem when I first came to Healy was that teachers wanted to be told what to do. It was very difficult for them to actively participate in analyzing problems and creating solutions because they had never before had that opportunity. Some did not want the responsibility. Teachers were much happier being able to do what they had been doing all along. I made it clear to them that their involvement was important, but that is something that didn’t happen overnight.

There still are some holdouts who don’t want to participate in decision making.

I have done everything I can short of demanding that they change, but I won’t do that. Then, whatever they did with kids would be done grudgingly, and I don’t want that to occur.

Support for teachers

We have done a lot of things that have enabled teachers to work together as a group. For example, there are weekly grade-level meetings so that teachers spend 80 minutes a week planning, sharing, working on curriculum and looking at ways to improve. We did this by creating back-to-back prep periods. Now, as we are working on assessments, we have explored portfolios, as well as other performance assessments. This enables teachers to get together as a group. You can do this even in a large school.

We provide regular inservices, aiming for at least one quality presentation a month. The focus here is serious and concentrates on curriculum.

My management style is a reaction to all the principals with whom I have worked. I once had a lovely principal who would start something that was really great and then not follow through with the project or activity. During the first month, we would be very excited and then the enthusiasm would diminish and then stop. As a principal, when I started something, I followed through, building and improving projects that work.

Making parents feel welcome

Parents play a critical role in the success of a school. It is the success of a school—[it is] the parent who sets the goals and expectations for each child from birth on. We needed to capitalize on that. We needed to get parents involved in their child’s educational growth.

We knew that most of our parents were not comfortable in school. Their own school experiences were not happy ones, and anytime they were called to school, it was to tell them their child was not doing well. We also got feedback that they really wanted to help their child, but didn’t know how.

In the spring of 1993, we invited parents to come to school every Thursday morning for “A Second Cup of Coffee.” We focused on one curriculum area each month. Parents did science fair projects, created their own art works, participated in Family Math and took field trips to museums and places of interest. We averaged about 60 parents. We had five different translations going so that parents would really understand and participate.

We then got requests from working parents who felt left out. In the fall of 1993, we started “Family Nights.” On the third Thursday evening of each month, parents would bring their children and participate in a learning activity. We had Family Reading Night, Science Night, Art Night, History Night, etc. Our attendance averaged over 600 each session.

These activities have encouraged our parents to fully participate in our school program. They work with us to see that homework is completed and set high expectations for their children. Our parents feel good about school and good about learning.

Academics plus

When the profiling project began, we focused only on reading. During my third year here, I realized that writing was very important. I collected student compositions from each teacher, read every one and put comments on them. I wanted the kids to know that I was reading their work. Teachers still share student writing. We have exceeded state writing norms every year.

But I did more than that. I looked back on my schooling and considered the memorable parts. They weren’t reading and writing. It was events that took place in the school—the fairs we had that related to the curriculum. So we started having events at Healy. And it brought out the best in everyone. We made school fun. We had a yearly event until about four years ago. Now, we’ve gone to a thematic approach for teaching and have many activities over the year around that theme.

Probably the change of which I am most proud is the attendance rate at Healy, which has gone from 87 percent to 96 percent. In the beginning, we rewarded students with perfect attendance with movies because there were no video stores. At one time we also had a carnival. Now we have monthly and quarterly activities for students with perfect attendance. Parents also make cupcakes every month to take to the classrooms that have 98 percent or better attendance.

The role of reform

It’s important to realize that changes in the schools are not just the result of school reform. But reform has given principals discretionary funds, money with which to complete or build on a vision or dream. The discretionary money from state Chapter 1 funds has enabled us to do many different things. Healy School receives $875,000 per year. If I can’t make something work with that kind of budget, then there is something wrong with my management skills. Reform has also allowed principals to choose their own staffs, which I feel is a real plus. I have learned a lot from this and am very careful now in the staff I choose.

I had two different local school councils in six years, and they were magnificent. They are very proud of Healy, and they had a lot of confidence in me, so our relationship was good.

Changing attitudes

I am not a barrier person. I feel a principal’s job is to make things work, so you never heard me say, “I can’t do it.” You almost never heard me say, “No.” The most difficult part of my job, however, was probably changing teachers’ attitudes toward their job. I would probably be able to point to about five with whom I was not successful.

A principal must exhibit the behavior she or he wants teachers to model. For example, teachers knew that I was at school early and I stayed late. When I asked them to do something, I did it because I truly cared about the students. When a teacher brought a student to me, I spent time with that teacher and student.

Principals must set clear expectations for teachers. I am somewhat structured, but once the structure is there, I let go. If a teacher deviated from the norm, I would not react negatively because everybody does things differently. If I saw something not being done in what I perceived as the right way, or something happening that was not helping the school as a whole, I intervened. I didn’t intervene that much, however, because I have never met a teacher who comes to school intent on doing a lousy job. Teachers want to do a good job. Some of them may just not know exactly how to do it.

A major goal for me as principal was to make sure teachers had what they needed to do their job. When I was a teacher, I worked at a school that was always out of supplies. If a teacher does not have the supplies to teach, all you’re doing is making that teacher unhappy. You are not serving the kids. I have never said to a teacher, “I’m sorry, we can’t get you this.” Never. That was a personal commitment.

Creative insubordination

When faced with a problem, I try to analyze it and create a solution. I have worked in the system a long time, so I know where the resources are and how to use them to conquer some of the barriers. I have tried to help others in the system when I could and hoped that they would return the favor.

Through this, you earn a reputation for being cooperative or for getting things done or for being there when people need something. In the past, complaining didn’t do much good. Sometimes creative insubordination is more effective. As long as it is truly in the best interests of the students, I don’t have a problem with this approach.

Hiring a principal

When searching for a principal, local school councils should look at a candidate’s vision for a school, what they’d like to see the school do. What does the candidate see as components of a good school, and what would the candidate like in the school? Where the person went to college is important, as is the kind of training they’ve had. Their experience is relevant, especially their administrative experience.

I think an LSC first needs to know its vision for a school, however. If, for example, a principal wants a school to become a specialty school and the LSC does not, then the vision doesn’t match. There has to be a good match.