October 6, 2017 Blog, Leadership, Policy

Building Leaders

Principal Mauricio Segovia from Darwin Elementary School is one part educator, one part philosopher and one part motivational speaker.

“Five years ago, my school was on probation and on the list for potential closing,” says Mauricio. Darwin is now a Level 1 school, and Mauricio credits this vast improvement to a schoolwide shift in mindset toward seeing potential in every student. Through using The Leader in Me curriculum, every student at Darwin is a leader.

Mauricio came to his own leadership on a circuitous route. Born and raised in Chile, he studied theology, philosophy, ethics and agricultural engineering before immigrating to America as an adult. He was hooked on the philosophies of education reformers like Horace Mann and Paulo Freire before ever stepping foot in an elementary school classroom, and cites these men among other great thinkers as his true mentors.

Mauricio still carries the mark of a philosophy teacher — he taught at the high school level for three years in Chile — posing questions to himself as he speaks and drawing connections between grand unspoken rules that govern society and the rules that govern a kindergarten classroom. “All of the great things in life are connected somehow because they are all based on values and principles that are timeless,” he says.

“What is the mission of schooling?” Mauricio asks, rhetorically. “It is to grow leaders. How do you grow leaders? By believing in the students around you.” He believes that the old way of thinking about learning didn’t support this mission. “The traditional paradigm of education says that we track students — gifted, high achievers, average, low achievers. Expectations are developed according to group. We develop structures to provide services depending on levels.”

This philosophy does not allow a school to achieve the mission of growing leaders, because it assumes that some students have inherently more potential than others. “My paradigm of education tells me that every student in my building has the potential to be gifted,” says Mauricio. “Since I do believe that, it’s my responsibility as a principal to develop systems, opportunities and exposure so that every student can be supported.”

For Mauricio, a change in mindset necessitates a change in action. Once he and his staff agreed on the mindset that all students could be successful, and moreover, that all students could be leaders, they created structures that allow students to take on leadership opportunities throughout the school. Students in all grade levels can volunteer to be tour guides, public speakers who make videos for the school, and greeters. Students also run the peace room, assist administrators with basic tasks, and teach each other new skills like breakdancing. Even students who struggle the most have the opportunity lead, starting with creating their own behavior intervention plans. “We don’t just build leadership, we build ownership,” says Mauricio.

Last year, Darwin was designated by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) as an exemplary school for social and emotional learning. Mauricio and his teacher team accomplished their goal of being a “Lighthouse School,” the highest designation for The Leader in Me curriculum that helped frame their paradigm shift.

“Now, we’ve been able to bring this strong sense of culture, identity and agency, not just helping the students, but first helping the teachers to develop a common set of values and beliefs,” says Mauricio.

Mauricio has also furthered his own leadership, taking on the additional responsibility of being an Independent School Principal. “Through this opportunity we are gaining more autonomy,” he says. Mauricio has confidence that additional autonomy will allow him to complete Darwin’s transformation by being designated as a Level 1+ school in CPS. He expects his students to lead the way.