Leading with Empathy

Sullivan High School, located in Rogers Park, might be the most diverse high school in Chicago – as noted in this Chicago magazine article. About half of students are English language learners, many coming to Chicago as refugees and immigrants from all over the world. There are almost 50 languages spoken in Sullivan’s hallways. Over a quarter of students have special needs, and more than 90 percent of students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

When Chad Adams was hired as principal five years ago, he had his work cut out for him — the school had been on probation for over a decade, and less than 50 percent of students graduated. Thanks to Chad’s leadership, Sullivan has nearly doubled the graduation rate and has implemented programs that will allow students to be successful for years to come. “Theory of Change says that it takes five to seven years to achieve lasting outcomes,” said Chad. “My work here is just starting, I think.”

For Chad, being a leader begins and ends with empathy, and he understands the struggles that many of his students are going through. He grew up in Mississippi and was bussed into an all-black school, where he was one of a small handful of white students. Chad struggled academically, and after failing the fifth grade, was diagnosed as dyslexic and given an Individualized Education Program (IEP). “Failing a grade was a very traumatic experience for me, but it also propelled me to want to be a teacher because I saw teachers work so hard to get me to where I needed to be,” said Chad.

Rather than shying away from what challenged him, Chad went on to become an English and reading teacher at Farragut Career Academy, tackling the very subject that caused him to fail at the age of 12. “I wanted to take on the thing that had caused me the most frustration in life,” he said. Because of his success as a teacher, Chad was promoted to instructional coach at three Southside high schools. After receiving his master’s degree in school leadership and an attempt at starting a charter school, Chad became the assistant principal at Harper High School.

Chad learned about the importance of trauma-informed practices at Harper. “Trauma affected my life, my work and my sanity so much,” he said. “It showed me what we needed to do for students. If you’re distracted by everything going on around you, what do you care about algebra? We need to help them at the school level so that they can get to learning.” Chad carried his passion with him when he became the principal of Sullivan in 2013, and it led him to proactively address his students’ emotional needs.

With this in mind, Sullivan partnered with Umoja Student Development Corporation to dismantle the in-school suspension room and replace it with a peace room, which can help solve conflict by offering a safe space for discussion. Recognizing that students need to feel that same support to address struggles in the classroom, Chad formed a behavioral health team to address students’ mental health and emotional needs, and allocated funds to hire a full-time social worker for English language learners. Five years before Chad took over, Sullivan suspended 700 students in a year. Last year, that number was about 50.

Chad knows what it feels like to struggle in school, and he uses that experience to make positive changes. Sullivan had been failing for over a decade, but in all of that time, the structure of learning never changed. “All of this to me goes back to our diversity and to empathy,” said Chad. “Our students weren’t learning through the ‘old school’ way of sit-and-get. We needed a different approach.”

Through research, teacher input, and participation in The Fund’s Summer Design Program, Chad began to see a plan crystallize. Sullivan would target critical-thinking skills that students lacked, and would do so through project-based and personalized learning. The ultimate vision is to create personalized learning plans for each student, almost like the IEP Chad had in school. In this new model, teachers work across grade levels to ensure a student’s learning plan is seamless from one grade to the next. “It’s exciting,” Chad said. “There’s a lot of work to do, but it’s our vision. It will be great for the students.”

Chad aims to raise Sullivan to a Level 1 rating in the next few years. While he has only just begun the school transformation, he believes Sullivan will be a place where diversity – whether race, language, learning needs or emotional needs – is honored and supported.