Big, Bold and Beautiful Visions for a School Community (And a Robot?!)

There’s a four-foot tall robot roaming the halls at Michelle Clark STEM Academic Magnet High School. “Cisco gave us that,” says Principal Charles Anderson, speaking about one of the school’s many partner organizations. Charles is also a fixture in the halls. He is the wire connecting all of the moving pieces that are turning Clark into a community hub.

Charles lives by the motto, “What can I do that’s big, bold and beautiful?” To him, this means making meaningful connections that will set up his students for success. He starts every morning by greeting students at the door and says goodbye to them every afternoon.

It’s important to Charles to make his students feel welcome and that their voices are heard. After all, he’s been in their shoes – he graduated from Westinghouse Career Academy, a Chicago public school just three miles away from Clark. “We don’t know which young person it will be whose life we’ll change,” he said, “so we have to give it to all of them.”

Charles constantly looks for fresh ideas to make students feel more connected to the school. Next year, he’ll be piloting a program to celebrate each student’s birthday. Charles thinks this is one small way to make each student feel noticed.

In addition to getting to know each of his students, Charles makes connections outside of the school walls. Recently, he formed a mentorship program with Clark students and the 15th District Chicago Police Department (CPD). The program is modeled after Big Brothers Big Sisters and is called Big Blues. Its purpose is to let students have positive interactions with law enforcement. Charles also partners with the CPD and other schools in the Austin neighborhood to throw a yearly back-to-school event. Young people receive free backpacks and haircuts while families eat and mingle.

Not limiting itself to just educating students, Clark hosts a “Parent University” with supports ranging from college exposure opportunities to social and emotional learning workshops. Clark has even set aside a wing of rooms for parents and the community to use on a daily basis.  “The goal is for the neighborhood to say ‘this is the school that’s with us,’” Charles says. “The community should know that we’re part of what goes on in the neighborhood.”

With so many partnerships — Cisco Corp, GEAR UP, buildOn, Malcolm X College, Becoming A Man, and Introspect to name a few — Charles can’t do it all by himself. For the 2017-18 school year, the newly formed Office of Student Life will take over managing outside organizations, as well as focusing on student recruitment and parent engagement.

The robot will continue to focus on monitoring the halls.