Raising Expectations: How Golder Principal Vincent Gay encourages his students to defy the odds
At Golder College Prep, students are required to wear uniforms — with one big exception: When they get accepted to a college, seniors can sport their college’s “swag,” as Principal Vincent Gay puts it.
The tradition has a very targeted effect. “For our underclassmen,” explained Gay, “it becomes, ‘Oh I can’t wait until I get into a school, so I can wear my own stuff for the last months of my senior year!’”
The goal at Golder isn’t to graduate high school. It’s to graduate college. So Gay and his staff try to plant the seeds early, encouraging kids to think past senior year starting on the first day of freshman year. And at a Noble Network school that serves primarily low-income students of color — many of whom would be first-generation college students — it’s essential to show that a college education is within their reach.
In an interview with The Fund, Gay explains how he and his staff create an environment where defying the odds is just an everyday thing.
The Fund: As a charter school, Golder has kids from every corner of the city coming here. What kind of culture and what kind of community does that create?
Principal Vincent Gay: It creates a cool one and a weird one at the same time. If you live in Rogers Park and someone else lives in Chatham, the only time you see each other is during the school day. School starts at 8 a.m., and the kids will be here in the neighborhood around 6:30 a.m. They’ll be at the coffee shop. You’ll just see kids doing their homework together — boyfriend, girlfriend or just best friends — because where they live, it’s not feasible for them to hang out. Friday after school, you’ll just see a lot of kids finding places to hang out because they won’t see each other again until Monday.
The Fund: What informs your approach to leading the school?
Principal Gay: To me, I want to run a school that kids would like to come to. I always think about the student experience. Kids get a lot of homework. There are a lot of rules. But we always have to realize that we are shaping kids’ experiences.
The Fund: How do you impart that vision to students and teachers and staff?
Principal Gay: I think we try to do a good job of telling kids, “If you want this, then create it.” Sometimes it’s so easy for kids — and adults — to do the “woe is me.” My job is just to eliminate barriers and, a lot of times, just provide money. You are the headline, and my job is to help you. It’s not my priority, so if you want it, go chase after it.
The Fund: Several Noble schools have a big focus on college-readiness. What does that look like here?
Principal Gay: Talking about college so much so that kids roll their eyes, which is probably the best part. We’re not talking about the “if,” we’re talking about the “where.”
The Fund: During the day, what does that look like? How do you introduce that to freshmen who might not have thought seriously about college before?
Principal Gay: I think it’s interwoven into everything that we do. So sometimes we hit you over the head; sometimes it’s very subtle. The struggle is when kids are like, “I don’t want to go to college.” Well, you can make that decision when you’re a senior. For now, we’re going to assume that you are. Sometimes I think it can be off-putting for kids. But for most, I think it works.
The Fund: What’s something that inspires you about the future of education as a whole?
Principal Gay: I think there’s so much possible that we can have. Our valedictorian from the class of 2018 is at Princeton this year. It is possible. She is crazy smart. We played a small role in it. But it’s those things — defying the odds and getting to do that every single day.
The Fund: What do you think might be the next big thing in education?
Principal Gay: The push toward personalized learning. I think it could be really impactful. We’ll probably move toward a blend of personalized learning and then your traditional core classes. So much of college is “read these hundred pages, and we’re going to discuss it.” Are you disciplined enough to read something that is boring because someone is going to ask you questions? What you learn to do is finish the reading, and think of the questions someone might ask so that you are prepared. I think teaching kids that skill can happen individually.
The Fund: How have you, with the focus on college-readiness, prepared students for that environment?
Principal Gay: We try to make senior year more independent. Our struggle is that there’s so much support kids get, so we try to wean them off of it. I think the struggle for most college freshmen is adjusting to a class where you’re getting only one assignment a week or two. Midterm, final, paper. It’s getting our kids more used to that.
The Fund: What are your goals for Golder five years down the line?
Principal Gay: For us, it’s how do we get more kids to graduate from college. I think that’s our end goal. So what do we need to do here to make sure more kids are ready when they get there?
The Fund: What are you goals for yourself?
Principal Gay: The same thing. Helping more kids graduate from college.