September 13, 2021 Blog

Dr. Jackie Menoni’s Path to Personalized Learning

The days leading up to the first day of school are a flurry of last minute back-to-school preparation, but at Jose de Diego Community Academy they also mean a celebration. 

“We have this huge party,” Dr. Jackie Menoni, de Diego’s principal of six years, affirmed. It’s a tradition that began with her: In 2015 she hosted a kickoff barbeque to meet and welcome students, parents, and teachers back to school. Now it’s a robust and highly-anticipated end-of-summer event that gathers nearly 500 people to dance, bond, pick up free school supplies, and find out their new teacher assignments for the upcoming year. 

It’s all in the spirit of getting students and staff excited about school, and Dr. Menoni makes sure this work translates to the classroom with personalized learning. “We’ve been transforming classrooms: flipping from a ‘sage-on-the-stage’ teacher model to small group instruction, using learning menus, one-to-one technology, and adaptive software to meet kids where they’re at,” Menoni described. She wants students to be able to explore what works best for them and why. It doesn’t make for free reign or rowdy classrooms. On the contrary, it’s quite methodical, just not overly regimented: “It’s about building a plan for every student. We want students to walk in and have choices.” 

De Diego even turns traditional classroom setup on its head. There are no desks; instead, students can choose where they sit — on the carpet, at tables, on a yoga mat. “As long as they’re meeting objectives, completing tasks, and making gains, it doesn’t matter in what order or where they sit,” Dr. Menoni posited. But this past year, many of her students couldn’t opt to sit where they wanted and instead sat behind a screen. It certainly didn’t hamper the efforts of Menoni and her staff, however, who rose to the occasion to personalize the online experience — even if it just meant letting students design their own profile picture. 

Menoni credits her teachers as the heroes of online (and in-person) education. She would know — of her 11+ years of experience in childcare, elementary, middle, and high school settings prior to her principalship at Diego, 10 were spent teaching. But administration presented the ultimate opportunity to scale positive outcomes for students, and she brings a robust understanding of student development to her position: “Seeing and understanding [students at different grade levels] has helped to make me a better elementary school principal because I know what students are stepping into.”

But one thing principals can’t predictably account for during their tenure is school consolidation — de Diego has first-hand experience. In 2013, it was the largest welcoming school in CPS after a slew of school closures was approved by the Board of Education. As the third principal appointment in two years during that welcoming period, Dr. Menoni is intimately familiar with the challenges a school community faces during a consolidation. Despite the bill that was signed by J.B. Pritzker in July 2021 which provides for a fully elected Board of Education by 2026 as well as a moratorium on school closures until 2025, many principals remain vigilant. Dr. Menoni’s advice? “Know that what you’re doing is what’s right for kids. And when it’s right for kids, it’s right for the district. Don’t let those political plates that spin behind you lead the work that you’re doing every day.”

And it’s this very sentiment that’s propelled Dr. Menoni through such a long tenure in CPS. From being awarded “Principal for the Day” in a turnabout contest her senior year of high school to being named a Golden Apple Award finalist in 2021, Dr. Menoni’s principalship journey appears not only perseveringly triumphant but preordained. And why fight fate? “This is it for me,” Menoni said, smiling. “This is where I feel like I am supposed to be.”