“Kids are first in everything we do”: How a Back of the Yards principal creates a community of support
For more than a decade, Principal Paul Schissler has led Lara Academy with one guiding principle: “Kids are first in everything we do.”
“You have to care about what kids need,” Schissler explained. “It’s a tough neighborhood. There is violence, poverty, and a lack of social services. You can’t work here if you don’t understand this. The staff at Lara truly understands what it takes to address the social and emotional needs of our students. By doing this, they can address the academic needs more effectively.”
Lara is located near the heart of the Back of the Yards, a predominantly Latinx neighborhood. With the help of his assistant principal, Rosario Badillo, Schissler has worked hard to make Lara an inclusive space for his students and their families.
“Ms. Badillo and I spend a lot of time listening to our families about what they need,” Schissler said. “It is important to know what’s going on in the neighborhood. I genuinely care what happens here. It is not just a job to me.”
To strengthen ties with the neighborhood, the school hosts several events for families. One is a cooking competition each year called Pozolada, where families and community members taste test each other’s pozole, a traditional Mexican soup made with hominy. “From red, green and white to pork, fish and veggie,” Schissler described, “the gym is packed with people. The woman who won two years ago cried.”
Pozolada is part of a broader effort to ensure parents feel just as comfortable in the school as their children, which is bolstered by the fact that the school staff “believes in them, understands them, and respects their culture,” Schissler shared.
Creating a space for families to come together as a community has been a large part of Lara’s success, and it has been vital to the community in times of need. Schissler recalled a time when two houses in the neighborhood burned down. Several Lara families were impacted.
“My assistant principal and I were out that night,” Schissler said. “Eleven kids affected. Fortunately, they were all safe, and they all showed up the next day to school.”
While Schissler and Badillo were at the fire, they found out that a former student was scheduled to interview at The College of Wooster in Ohio the very next day. She said that she couldn’t go because she had nothing to pack. She lost all her things in the fire.
“We told her she was going to the interview,” Schissler said. “I don’t want to hear about it. You are going.” Schissler sent Badillo and the student to the store to get the items she needed.
The interview was a success. She ended up receiving a full scholarship and is now a Wooster graduate with a degree in psychology.
Schissler’s long-term goal is to raise the attainment level – the number of students achieving at grade level – across the school.
“We want to make sure that every kid has access to (a college like) Wooster. Everyone should be given that chance.” Schissler said.