Community comes first: A Q&A with Principal Elizabeth Meyers

The Fund caught up with Randolph Elementary School Principal Elizabeth Meyers to ask her a few questions about how she tries to foster a sense of community around her Englewood school. Principal Meyers is one of our 2018-19 Chicago Principal Fellows.

The Fund: Can you tell me a bit more about your school?

Principal Elizabeth Meyers: Randolph Elementary School is located in West Englewood neighborhood. We have a little under 500 students. Our students are 90 percent African-American and 10 percent Latino. This school is unique because we sit at the dead end of the street; we don’t experience as much violence as other schools in the community.

The Fund: What originally inspired you to become an educator?

Meyers: I wanted to be a school counselor. I did some recruiting at the college level, and I was assigned first to the northwest suburbs and then the North Side of Chicago. The difference in access blew my mind. When I was on the North Shore, students had to make appointments with me. They had full access to college centers. And then I went to a Chicago high school, and the staff sat me in the front of the lunchroom with a table and said, “Good luck.” That was the way that I was supposed to get kids to want to go to college. I knew I needed to do something different, because if these students don’t even have access to or know about college, then how are they going to get there? I signed up for Teachers for Chicago, which was an alternative certification program, and I’ve been in education ever since.

The Fund: What does a typical day look like during the school year?

Meyers:  I would say that 70 percent of my day is with the kids. I greet them in the morning. I hug them when I leave. I’m walking around in classrooms. I’ve been in the lunchroom and on lunch duty sometimes. I’ve even served them on recess. Another 25 percent of it is with parents. We have kids that have a lot of social-emotional needs, and we have parents who are dealing with their kids’ issues – and their own. And then that little bit that’s left over is for my teachers.

The Fund: Can you tell me a little about your relationship with parents?

Meyers: When I first got here, parents said they didn’t feel like the school was accessible to them. I believe that parents are the key to our students’ success. That’s cliche, but I also know that if I can help a parent, then I’m helping a child even more. For example, we had a parent who was driving from Indiana every day to get her child to school here. She was staying in a motel during the week. We connected her with an outside agency to get her shelter closer to the school. The one thing she didn’t want was her kid to not come to the school. She grew up in the neighborhood and she had gone to this school, and she felt the community ties. I think I know more about my parents than a lot of principals do. Parents know that they can come to me and share.

The Fund: How do you establish a presence with your students?

Meyers: Being present. One thing that I wanted to do when I came to Randolph was to create a student voice. The students know that in all the other parts of their life, they don’t have a voice. They don’t get to advocate for themselves. But we create a place for them to advocate. They may not agree with everything, but they can articulate it and say how they feel without being disrespectful. They know that I really do care about them as people.

The Fund: Can you tell me a little about your teachers and the characteristics that they share that make them so great?

Meyers: We have teachers who have taught here their whole career, which means they are vested in the community and the community knows them. We have one teacher whose dad was a science teacher here. We also have a newer group of teachers who have started since I’ve been here. They chose Englewood. They chose this place to make a difference. And their contributions to it are powerful.

The Fund: You mentioned that you have a growing Latino population. How does diversity foster a better learning environment?

Meyers: I think that it allows our kids to see the real world. I think about myself. Until I went to college, I was only in African-American communities. All-black high school, all-black grammar school. It was a culture shock to get to college and see so many different people. At Randolph, our teaching staff is intentionally diverse. We are going to have conversations about race that we never had before. Diversity will push us to teach inclusion and the value of being different.

The Fund: How does the culture of your community factor into your approach to education?

Meyers: For a lot of kids, it’s a matter of life and death. Although our school may not experience the violence as much, a lot of our kids do. They live in it, and when they come here, we have a more tender approach with them — but it’s also firm approach because we know how serious things are for them. Students know that — if something happened over the weekend — we’re here, and we have to talk about students’ experiences the way they present them. We can’t shy away from it.

The Fund: How does environment affect student success?

Meyers: Environment is key. When I was a teacher, my goal was to create a classroom environment that allowed my kids — for whatever amount of time I had them in that day — to escape their reality.  You will notice that this school is bright, it is colorful, and it is cheery. That’s intentional — that warmth — because if nothing else, students feel the safety. Color does something to people, and if we have a building that is at least more inviting, that is half the battle.

The Fund: Why is being a principal the best job there is?

Meyers: Because you get to impact not only kids, but also teachers and parents and, when it’s all said and done, a community. What I do — the actions I take — impacts a whole community, and you can see that impact for good or for bad. That’s the most awesome thing. All the people that a principal can reach and influence — I think that’s definitely what makes it worth it to me.