‘I just couldn’t let it continue’

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Olga La Luz

Photo by Jason Reblando

Olga La Luz

On a few occasions, when Olga La Luz began doing school walkthroughs as a new area instructional officer, she would see something in classrooms that made her cringe. Or rather, it was what she didn’t see: real learning.

Kids would be writing and rewriting spelling words or filling in worksheets, while the teacher sat at his or her desk, reading or grading papers.

Right then and there, she would pull the teacher aside and, in a quiet, halting voice, ask, “What do you think the students are doing?”

La Luz, a tiny woman who’s barely 5 feet, says teachers and even principals were taken aback by her direct questioning. But she was determined to put a stop to lackadaisical instruction. “I just couldn’t let it continue happening,” she says.

When La Luz drew that line in 2002, many of the schools located in her geographic area, which today stretches from Belmont Cragin to West Town, were in academic trouble. Average pass rates in math and reading for the 22 schools hovered around 30 percent. Almost every student was poor and most of them were Latino or black—demographics that are often linked to low achievement.

By 2006, preliminary scores were considerably higher, with an average of 56 percent of students meeting reading standards, and 26 schools surpassing the 47.5 percent threshold set by the federal law. Before La Luz took over, none of the schools in her area was achieving such high results.

Among the district’s 17 instructional areas for elementary schools, La Luz’s territory, also known as Area 4, has made the most progress. And she has accomplished this growth even as the workload expanded. Last year, she picked up six more schools (now she oversees 28) when the district eliminated another area office to save money.

“Olga La Luz has a very strong instructional team and we have seen some high quality work in that area,” says Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins. “They are an example of what it is like to be very passionate and work extremely hard.”

Eason-Watkins and CEO Arne Duncan personally attended the October Area 4 principals meeting to congratulate La Luz and her charges on the work they are doing.

La Luz relies on a few guiding tenets to jumpstart literacy and instruction. She’s a hard-core believer in reading aloud and journal writing and she suspects most classrooms now practice both. She wants classroom libraries to be well-stocked and put to use—daily.

And she demands that principals spend a large part of their days—preferably blocking out the entire morning—focusing on instruction.

Her passion for the work—which has her starting the day at a school early in the morning and goes well into the evening hours—extends to her handpicked management team, many of whom worked with her when she was principal of Chase Elementary.

“That is how I feel and that is what I look for,” she says.

Lisa Jackson, who monitors how schools in Area 4 spend federal Title I funds and other grants, says La Luz is known for backing up principals and teachers, even as she critiques them.

“She is their advocate,” Jackson says.

A personal mission

Taking on the challenge of leading a couple dozen schools was not daunting to La Luz, 58, a former principal who was born in Puerto Rico but grew up in the same community that she now serves. She relates to parents and students in a very personal way.

Parents who have little money, as hers did, care deeply about their children’s education, she says. And as a child, La Luz says she hated going to school. Sitting sedentary in class, listening to teachers lecture, turned her off. And too often, the day was filled with mindless tasks, like writing spelling words 10 times, La Luz recalls.

“I struggled, I struggled, I struggled,” she says, her voice still bearing the lilt of a Spanish-speaker.

Motivated by the desire to not let another child go through such a negative public school experience, La Luz decided to become a teacher. With degrees from Roosevelt and DePaul universities, she taught in elementary and high schools, and worked with children in bilingual and special education programs. Later, as principal of Chase, she led the school off of probation and won a national award from the Child Study Center at Yale University School of Medicine.

As one of the district’s first crop of area instructional officers, La Luz went through a battery of training, but it was up to her to figure out what to do with schools under her charge. Throwing herself headlong into the job, she pledged to visit every classroom in every school once a month. “I almost killed myself,” she says.

Over time, she developed a system to prioritize schools’ needs, where those that needed to make significant improvement would get a lot of attention from the area team, while schools where principals were showing progress were dealt with a hands-off approach.

For example, Stowe Elementary’s reading scores just this year broke through the 50 percent threshold of state standards. Stowe had been on probation so La Luz and her staff were there often over the past three years, insisting on monthly walkthroughs and implementing a new math and reading curriculum, says Principal Charles Kyle.

However, La Luz might go to Chase once every two months. The principal there, Elizabeth Gonzalez, was on the faculty when La Luz was in charge, and she has continued the work La Luz began. If she needs help in a particular area, Gonzalez says, area instructional staff responds.

Staying out of certain schools sends leaders the message that she respects what they are doing. “I have to honor people’s expertise,” she says. “I don’t want to just visit schools to be visiting.”

Knowing what’s important

Still, La Luz tries to go to at least two schools most days, except when the downtown administration calls meetings.

On walkthroughs, La Luz is big on classroom walls, pointing out that teachers should post information that relates to lessons so that students can be reminded and reference them. She also looks for word walls and math walls.

“Last year, our focus was fluency, this year it is vocabulary,” says Schubert Principal Elba Maisonet.

For math, many schools have adopted a program that emphasizes connecting math concepts to the real world. On walkthroughs, La Luz looks for math walls that show numbers and groups of numbers represented in a variety of ways.

Instructional oversight is the lion’s share of an area instructional officer’s responsibilities, but a year ago, the district mandated that they earmark about a third of their time for principal hiring, especially working with local school councils. La Luz says she’s always taken it upon herself to get involved in principal selection. She shows up at LSC meetings and asks probing questions to direct the council’s deliberations.

Last year, for example, council members at one school were leaning toward hiring a principal whose expertise was student discipline. La Luz says she asked LSC members to consider what the school really needed: discipline or higher reading scores?

“I try to get them to think,” she says.

Her goal is to guide LSCs to choose someone who is strong in curriculum and instruction. Once those candidates are hired, she encourages the new principals to block out large chunks of their day to concentrate on what is being taught in classrooms.

Principals should not get tied up with “putting out fires” all day, she says. That is the assistant principal’s job. “I tell them to block out their mornings,” she says. “Don’t take calls or meetings until 11 or 12.”

Connecting the dots

Besides being the principal of principals, La Luz sees her role as a connector, helping to bring parents and community groups into schools to provide support. She nudges principals to partner with social service organizations, universities and health care providers, and encourages staff to make parents feel welcome.

When La Luz was a girl, she says her mom—who didn’t have much formal education or speak English well—never came to her school. “She was intimidated,” La Luz says.

To get parents through the doors, some Area 4 schools have GED and ESL classes. Others, have family literacy nights and classroom newsletters that tell parents what is going on in classes.

Staff also needs to adopt a “parents can” attitude, rather than assume that poor people don’t have the time, energy or commitment to do much to benefit the school, La Luz says. Lack of parent involvement is often used as an excuse for low achievement, she explains.

Recently, parents at Lowell hosted a banquet to raise money for the band program, La Luz recounts. The event had all the staples of an upper-crust fundraiser, like a silent auction, but the things being auctioned were priced so that working families could participate. “I just won’t forget that event,” she says.

While she’s still enthusiastic about things like the event at Lowell, La Luz notes that she is getting tired. She questions how long she can keep up her jam-packed schedule. Five of the district’s AIOs retired this year, and La Luz wonders whether its time for her to do the same.

“I can’t just keep going at this pace,” she says. “I need to slow down.”

Associate Editor Debra Williams contributed to this story.

To contact Sarah Karp, call (312) 673-3882 or e-mail karp@catalyst-chicago.org.