Giving it her all

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Principal Coralia Barraza

Photo by Cristina Rutter

Principal Coralia Barraza

Clutching a notebook and three sharpened pencils, Principal Coralia Barraza smoothly zigzags around the piles of books and huddles of students in the halls of the Orozco Fine Arts & Sciences Elementary. It’s not quite 9 a.m., but she has already held one meeting some 90 minutes ago and her day is in high gear.

Barraza stands just 4 feet 9 inches tall, but her voice carries over the banging locker doors as middle-grades students rush to their first class: “Good morning. How are you? Don’t leave anything on the floor.” She strides down the corridor, speaking to the students in a mix of English and Spanish common in the school’s Pilsen neighborhood: “Rapidito! Vamonos!” (Quickly! Let’s go!) In between, she greets teachers. She walks up to one woman, rubs her pregnant belly and shares a laugh; she tells another teacher that she is happy to meet with her later in the week; she picks up a pencil that an instructor has accidentally dropped.

Just as the bell rings, Barraza sweeps into a 7th-grade reading class, where she will observe the teacher. The class begins with the students sitting at their desks, reading silently, as the teacher looks over her lesson plan. Barraza, sporting boots with 3-inch heels, keeps moving—walking around the room, looking over the shoulders of students, asking questions and taking notes.

During this 13-hour day, she will observe three classes and confer with those teachers about their performance evaluations, talk to a staffer about ways to encourage use of the school’s new health clinic, tally the results of more than 600 student surveys on the school’s strengths and weaknesses, and meet with two parents whose kids sneaked cell phones into class.

As principal, Barraza has multiple roles: chief executive officer, social worker, supervisor and mentor to her staff, and leader in the community. She is Latina, a group that is still underrepresented as principals in CPS. She is praised if test scores rise and blamed if they fall. It is arguably the toughest job in the school system, with principals squeezed between pressure from the top administrators and the demands of teachers, parents and students. The typical workload is a grueling 60 hours a week.

Under Barraza’s leadership, test scores at Orozco have steadily improved. In 2009, 77 percent of students met or exceeded state standards on the ISAT, up from just 56 percent in 2002, when Barraza became principal. (In 2009, 68 percent of all CPS students met or exceeded state standards.)

“She could have rested on her laurels, but what she talks about is seeing every single kid get to grade level,” says Chris Brown, director of education programs with the Local Initiatives Support Corporation’s Chicago office, which is administering a foundation grant to provide after-school programs at Orozco. “She holds herself to a really high standard, and she creates that culture there.”

Barazza’s story illustrates how mentoring, stability and strong, deep ties to the surrounding community are integral to school success. In a recent book “Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago,” experts from the Consortium on Chicago School Research note that ties to neighborhood institutions and to parents are one of the five “essential supports” that helped even the lowest-achieving schools improve.

Yet with the district’s emphasis shifting toward performance management and data analysis, principals can easily find themselves with little or no time to spend on forging ties outside schools.

Barraza says she and other principals could be more effective if the school system decreased their paperwork and increased support. But she knows those changes may never happen. So she shifted gears, finding resources from outside institutions and drawing inspiration from daily triumphs, such as seeing 300 parents show up on a freezing winter night to attend an honor roll assembly for their kids.

“I don’t think I am the type of person who sees the obstacles,” says Barraza, 57. “I think I only see the opportunities.”

Barraza’s own life is proof of the power of that philosophy. Like the parents of so many of her students, she is an immigrant who grew up in poverty. The fourth of eight children, she spent her time after school in Guatemala selling homemade cheese to help support her family. In her office, she displays a black-and-white photo of her humble past: She and her siblings pose next to their home, a shack of mismatched boards.

The family emphasized the importance of school. “My father just kept pushing and pushing academics,” says Barraza, her eyes misty at the memory. “He said we had to be something. Even if we didn’t have anything to eat, he always pushed education.”

After Barraza graduated with a university degree in teaching home economics, she wanted to go on to law school. But her father told her that the family couldn’t afford it. So she followed a sister to the United States, where she thought it might be easier to earn money.

For 14 years, she worked in various factories, making wheels for furniture and bows for Christmas trees. She got married, had a son, became a permanent resident in 1978 and a citizen six years later. In between factory shifts, she learned English at Truman College and then transferred to the National College of Education (now National-Louis University), earning a degree in bilingual education. She shrugs off the notion that what she did was so difficult, saying she had her husband’s support and “when you like what you’re doing, you do it.”

In 1984, she started teaching at Sabin Magnet School. During her 10 years there, she continued her education. Inspired by a nephew who is autistic, she decided to study special education and received a master’s degree from DePaul University. She also earned a master’s degree in school administration from Northeastern University.

Barraza started teaching at Orozco in 1993 because it offered after-school programs that gave her the chance to work more intensively with bilingual students. She never seriously considered becoming an administrator. But when the principal of Orozco, Rebecca de los Reyes, found out that Barraza had two master’s degrees, she made her the assistant principal the following year.

Barraza still marvels that de los Reyes saw her potential. “When in my dreams was I going to be a teacher in the United States, an assistant principal in the United States and then a principal in the United States?” she says.

Barraza notes that the mentoring she received from de los Reyes has been key to preparing her for the job. An older woman, de los Reyes was also an immigrant—born in Mexico, raised in Humboldt Park—who nicknamed Barraza “Shorty” and gradually gave her more responsibilities each year.

Most importantly, Barraza recalls, de los Reyes taught her how to lead by including other people—teachers, parents and community members. In decisions ranging from choosing curriculum materials to outlining the school’s mission, de los Reyes encouraged contributions from others.

“I was a very shy person. She showed me how to open up to the outside world,” Barraza says. “She was very open with people. She was very open to suggestions. She was never the type of person who would jump on things right away. She would listen.”

After de los Reyes was promoted to area instructional officer, she recommended to the local school council that Barraza become principal. (Area instructional officers are now known as chief area officers; de los Reyes has since retired.)

Initially, Barraza didn’t want the job because she was scared of the enormous responsibility, but de los Reyes urged her to think of the school and the community. And once into the job, Barraza says the transition felt seamless because of her mentor’s preparation.

That same stability extends to Barraza’s staff. The average tenure for the school’s 39 teachers is 20 years. According to a 2007 Consortium on Chicago School Research survey, the top struggle reported by new principals is getting rid of bad teachers. But Barraza says personnel issues have not been a big concern for her. Just one or two teachers have been low performers, she says, and they left on their own.

When hiring new teachers, though, Barraza weeds out candidates by being upfront about the intensity of the workload, her expectations, and the challenges of serving an immigrant student population. “I send my message right there and then,” she says.

She also requires that finalists be interviewed and approved by fellow teachers because, Barraza explains, “they have to deal with each other’s issues every single day.”

Dan Naliwajko, a physical science and language arts teacher, says he feels invested in the school because Barraza—like de los Reyes—asks teachers for their input on how to improve student performance. Surveys have shown that teachers prefer good working conditions, including the opportunity to have a voice in how their school is run, over higher pay.

“She doesn’t shut you down,” Naliwajko says. “In the end, it motivates you to work harder because you know your opinion and your voice matters.”

Barraza’s approach also helps cultivate new leaders, and Naliwajko says that he thinks he might want to run his own school one day. Barraza has made him the co-coordinator of after-school programs, giving him more responsibilities, just as de los Reyes did for her.

Principals are now expected to be even more involved in their teachers’ development and act as “instructional leaders.” While Barraza agrees that such leadership is important, she doesn’t know where to find the time. Her suggestion: The school system should hire curriculum specialists to carry out much of this work, then have principals oversee the efforts.

This year, students are taking diagnostic assessments every few months, and the results are to be used to evaluate teachers. Principals must examine the data, make suggestions for their teachers and then observe the classes to see if changes are being made.

“It’s way, way too much. The workload has increased a lot this year,” says Barraza, flipping through a thick packet of paper on one teacher’s evaluation.

“They want the principal to be the instructional leader,” she adds, “But on the other hand, they don’t go to the schools to see that we don’t have the time to do this and everything else.”

Often, Barraza’s time is taken up solving the social challenges that crop up in disadvantaged schools. Today, she is running behind, but ducks into Room 210 anyway. She’s been told that a kid who failed 8thgrade last year and was arrested for tagging buildings with graffiti has returned to school. She wants to check on him. But he’s not in class.

Instead, the 14-year-old slouches in a chair downstairs. He doesn’t want to wear the required tie, and he certainly doesn’t want to go to class. Barraza orders him into her office. “By law, you have to be here. You have no choice,” she says, her voice firm and imposing. “You go up to the classroom and you do the work. If you feel otherwise, you let me know, and I’ll get the probation officer. Nobody in this building has time to sit with you.”

The boy mumbles that he doesn’t want to wear the tie. She stares him down: “You respect the rules. Put the tie on.” She calls the school resource officer to take the boy to class.

Next, the boy’s mother is brought into the office. A single mother, she tells Barraza in Spanish that her son is old enough to do whatever he wants. The principal responds that the mother has to look after her son. “He’s not the only student here,” Barraza says.

Later, she tells the assistant principal to call the Department of Children and Family Services. Since the boy is classified as a special education student, social workers can get involved. After the mother leaves, Barraza fumes. “Can you believe that? She says he’s old enough to decide what he wants.”

Barraza and her staff spend as much time dealing with students’ social problems as they do with academics. About 97 percent of Orozco students are low-income, and 27 percent are English-language learners. To keep students from wearing gang colors, the school enforces a strict uniform policy: black shoes, blue pants, white shirts and ties.

 The challenges are huge, Barraza says, but not insurmountable. “We are working for a system that is giving us too little but asks us for too much,” she says. “If they gave me the money to say, ‘OK, we are going to do two hours of reading or English or language support in the evening twice a week,’ at least I can say that the system has given me the support that I needed. And if I didn’t know how to use the money, then that was my responsibility or my fault.”

To fill the resource gap, Barraza has searched outside the system. In 2008, Orozco won a four-year, nearly $3 million grant to extend the school day into the late afternoon and Saturdays, add enrichment programs and build and staff an in-school health clinic. The school partnered with the Resurrection Project, a community development group in Pilsen, to apply for the grant. But funding ends in 2012, and Barraza is now scrambling to find support to continue the programs.

Raul Raymundo, the Resurrection Project’s CEO, says Barraza is a tenacious, organized leader who doesn’t waver. “Ms. Barraza understands that education goes beyond the four walls of the school and that you have to embrace the community,” he says. “Sometimes, principals make bureaucratic obstacles or use the bureaucracy of CPS to say ‘No.’”
Parents say that Barraza is approachable and accessible. She makes herself available in the evenings so parents can stop by for meetings after work. On the weekends, she attends community festivals. And she pores over every student’s report card, often writing in her own comments.

Maria Gomez, a member of Orozco’s local school council, says that Barraza’s leadership and high standards convinced her to enroll her three children, who had previously attended Catholic schools. The principal met with the family for 45 minutes.

“I thought, ‘Oh my God, I love this lady.’ She took the time out for us,” Gomez says. “She treats the kids as if they were her kids.”

Much of Barraza’s time is not spent with students, but with paper. Her desk and shelves are filled with binders of color-coded spreadsheets. “It’s insane, the amount of paperwork we have to do,” she says. “Every time we go to a principals’ meeting, there is something new that we have to do.”

Barraza says the central office should make more school visits and provide on-site mentoring and observations for principals, rather than sending out directives and requiring more meetings.

“I wish that Mr. Huberman would come to the different schools and find out the different challenges,” she says. “The way they’re running the system is one-size-fits-all.”

Despite the workload, Barraza has stayed at Orozco because she loves the community and feels that she is making a difference. Now, the job has exhausted her, and she plans to retire within two years. Being a principal, she says, would have been impossible if her son had not already been grown up, or if her husband was not willing to help run the household. She hopes the next principal will be someone who is passionate about the school and bilingual kids.

Her advice to new principals: Be patient and calm. When a problem arises, don’t get upset. Instead, research the situation, listen, and think.

“To be in this office, you have to really have good mental health,” Barraza says. “Every day, when I come in, I keep saying, ‘I have to keep my balance.’”

And, she notes, stick around long enough—things get better. “The more I do, the more I accomplish,” she says. “It gets more inspiring.”

In retirement, Barraza wants to spend more time with her family, do volunteer work and pursue a law degree, something she promised her father long ago. “I have given a lot to the community, everything I had,” she says. “It’s time for me to go.”

Like today, she ends nearly every workday in her office, alone. As the staff leaves and turns off the lights, she hunches over the pile of work that never seems to end.

Phuong Ly is a Chicago-based writer. Send an e-mail to