Building Bridges at Chase Elementary
When Principal Raquel Saucedo of Salmon P. Chase Elementary School joined the Peace Corps after graduating college, she dreamt of one day becoming a civil engineer who would build bridges in developing nations around the world.
“What I really wanted was to make a difference in people’s lives,” said Raquel, reflecting on her earlier ambitions. After working in high schools in Senegal for a year, Raquel came back to Chicago and earned her master’s in Special Education and School Administration from the University of Illinois at Chicago. Only later did she realize that her work in schools was a lot like civil engineering, after all.
Raquel completed her principal residency at Chase, just a few blocks away from her childhood home. When the former principal was ready to retire, Raquel was identified as her successor. It was this former principal mentor who made the connection for Raquel between her development work in Senegal and her role as principal.
“She taught me that running a school is a lot like development work because you are building infrastructure around communities,” Raquel said. “You have to think about creating sustainable systems for change and bridging the gaps between people.” Now in her sixth year at Chase, Raquel is proud to be have found her “life’s purpose” and to help develop the very neighborhood she grew up in.
When Raquel first became principal, there was room for improvement in a number of different areas. She began by trying to unify and revitalize the teachers and staff. “When I first got here, I didn’t understand why the school was at such a low level,” Raquel said. “I tried to build professional development around teacher needs but soon realized that teachers’ voices had never been reflected in decision-making at the school.”
She began by building trust with the teachers, asking them what they needed and how she could best support them. Then Raquel was deliberate in incorporating feedback into her practice as principal. She pushed her staff with new practices and higher standards. In that first year, reading grew 20 percentage points. This really gave her buy-in.
With the administrative infrastructure in place, Raquel focused on bridging the gap between the school and the outside community. One advantage in this endeavor was her personal connection with the parents, having grown up in the area in a Spanish-speaking home.
“When I was younger, my parents were not that involved in my education. It was not because they didn’t care, but rather because it was hard for them to understand English, plus they worked long hours,” Raquel remembered.
Many of her students also come from similar situations, and Raquel has worked hard to bring parents into the school. She hosts curriculum and science nights. It is important for parents to feel a part of the Chase community because, “If students don’t feel like their parents understand, then students don’t feel accountable,” she said. “My students need to know that they can find support here at school if they don’t get it at home.”
This social and emotional component of education is especially important for Raquel. Since 2014, Chase has been rated an exemplary social and emotional learning school by Chicago Public Schools (CPS). “I want my student to be able to advocate for themselves and communicate better at home and with others,” Raquel said. With two social workers in the building this year, Raquel is hoping to build mentoring relationships for students.
Looking back, Raquel said that she would not be where she is today without the support and guidance of great educators. “I had a wonderful physics teacher in high school who really turned my life around,” she said. “He got me interested in engineering, and I hope to inspire my students in the same way.” Raquel is motivated by a mission of being “a conduit for change.” She hopes to develop opportunities for her students and teachers, as she set out to do for communities around the world years ago.