Choosing to Lead and Stay in Chicago

Note from The Fund: Serena Peterson-Klosa is the principal of Christian Ebinger Elementary School on Chicago’s Northside in the Edison Park community. She is an alum of the inaugural 2014-15 cohort of the Chicago Principals Fellowship and a 2016-17 Cahn Fellow. Below, Serena shares her experience in both programs, which aim to support and retain Chicago’s top principals.

I am an extremely loyal person –I still meet with the first principal I had as a teacher in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) to get his opinion and support. When I chose to be a principal in CPS, I knew I was committing to the job and to the district. I love being a principal here in Chicago. I not only work with a committed school community, but I also get to make decisions at my school whereas my colleagues in other districts have decisions made for them.

However, being a principal can be a lonely experience. As the leader of my school, I often navigate big decisions or complicated issues on my own, which can feel isolating and stressful.

For this reason, opportunities like the Chicago Principals Fellowship (The Fellowship) and Cahn Fellows Program are invaluable experiences. Each program challenges a diverse group of experienced principals to further hone their leadership skills and allows principals to develop extensive peer support networks.

The Fellowship raises the bar for school leadership. In contrast to typical professional development, which may focus mostly on our day-to-day work, the Northwestern courses engage principals in growing our overall leadership skills. We learned from CEOs leading in different industries, and we worked with executive coaches who helped us reach our leadership goals in our schools. My cohort grew very close. In fact, I still communicate with members of my cohort often – sometimes daily! Their support and friendship makes me feel part of a larger community, and I often call on them for advice around tough issues.

Building on the leadership work in The Fellowship, the Cahn Fellows Program is currently helping me further apply my learning to my work at Ebinger. Working with the Cahn Fellows Program – which included two weeks of professional learning in New York City over the summer – helped me return to school refreshed and ready to dive into a new school year. Additionally, the program structure allows me to deepen my relationship with my Assistant Principal, who is my “ally” and participates in the program with me. It has been a great asset to thought partner with someone who knows my school community, especially as I implement my capstone project. Just as in The Fellowship, Cahn Fellows is helping me to strengthen my peer network and learn from phenomenal principals in both Chicago and New York. One of my colleagues, Chad Weiden, the principal of Edgebrook Elementary School, agreed that “peer relationships are crucial in getting that necessary informal feedback for growth and development.”

Being a principal is a tough job. There have been moments when I have wondered whether I can remain a principal in Chicago. Through these fellowships I know I am not doing this difficult work alone. I feel empowered to learn from and rely on a group of talented principals whom I may not have met otherwise.

Principals need more opportunities like these fellowships that not only support principals in honing their craft but also enable them to develop strong support networks. Principals who have a community of peers who support them will grow professionally and ultimately stay in their schools. I am only one voice, but I am here for the long haul.