Q&A with Principal Brigitte Swenson
Second chances provide us all with the opportunity to correct paths that caused us to stray from our dreams. For some, these second chances manifest in another opportunity to complete a high school education. In Chicago, that’s where Brigitte Swenson and Peace and Education High School come in. We had the chance to speak with Principal Swenson, a former Chicago Principal Fellow, to get a better idea of exactly how Peace and Education High School is providing those second chances for their students.
The Fund: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What was your path to becoming a principal?
Brigitte Swenson: I went to undergrad at Knox College in Illinois and did not know what I wanted to become. I started as an English major because I wanted to be a lawyer. I took a “school and society course” in my sophomore year and did an about face on what I wanted to do. I was inspired to provide quality education to young people who didn’t have access to it. It changed my path and I thought, “I don’t really want to be a classroom teacher. I want to make bigger change.” I came to Chicago in my senior year and did research in Chicago school reform. This was when Local School Councils (LSC) were being revamped and Mayor Daley was leading reform. I took notes on LSCs to figure out who had the power in each school. I was a field researcher. I decided I didn’t want to be a teacher. I wanted to study education. I was told not to do anything in education without first teaching, but back then I was an English teacher so I was a dime a dozen. I got a call back from an alternative high school that was for people who had dropped out of school and were coming back. I turned down a job as a GED coordinator and decided to be a teacher at this alternative high school as an English teacher. It is my 18th school year with this program.
The Fund: You work at a school for students who have dropped out of school and want to return. Can you tell us more about the work of Peace and Education Coalition High School?
BS: We do unique things with how we structure our day and earn credits at Peace and Education. We want face-to-face instruction, without using computers all day long. I don’t believe that that’s the best way to send a message about teaching. What we think is the most appealing is creating a very safe space. The students want to feel like they can trust adults and that their adults like them. Even if they’re difficult, the message sent to the students in the building is that they’re liked and that they’re worth it. It’s the number one thing they say is different about the school and the number one thing that they miss after they leave. As a principal in a small setting like this, I am able to be incredibly involved in the students and teachers. What we’re offering them is mentorship and love, and that goes a long way for young people. Their education is important to us. You will see our kids reading Shakespeare and dealing with primary texts. This is not a watered down version of education. We’re going to give you everything you had at other schools or even better.
The Fund: Describe an average day at school.
BS: We start at 9 AM. Every single support staff member is doing check-in. I’ll have staff at sign-in desk and cafeteria area. The dean and myself are greeting students and walking the block, watching to make sure students are able to walk safely. The staff are supervising breakfast to gage students’ temperature. Who is overly hungry? Who has dirty clothes on? Who has had an argument? We’re putting out messages to the staff upstairs to “Give [this student] his space,” for example. That’s what we’re doing in the morning. We’re just engaging with them.
We have four periods a day to minimize the time spent in the hallways. They have 90 minute classes, 5 minute passing period, 2nd period afterwards for lunch. For 80 to 90 kids, we have ten staff members walking around the cafeteria. We try to have fun activities at lunch and then go back upstairs for class. Then, we say goodbye at the end of the day.
The Fund: Let’s talk about how you’ve worked with other principals. What was your experience like as a Chicago Principal Fellow?
BS: The Chicago Principal Fellowship is single-handedly the best professional development I have ever received as a public school principal. We did things like mimic CEO meetings. We were placed on committees, and we were part of a decision making process. We were also included in a principal eligibility process. Not only were we growing in our own leadership skills, but we were also given the chance to participate.
The Fund: Do you still keep in touch with your cohort?
BS: Yes, we e-mail regularly with the cohort and we were so sad that cohort one was a one-and-done thing. We have advocated and asked for The Fund to have a professional learning community. I don’t have as much in common with a level 1+ selective enrollment elementary, but getting the chance to hear from others with strengths in areas that I needed more of is great. We are all intelligent and have something to share.
The Fund: What’s one highlight of being a principal?
BS: My favorite day of the school year is graduation day. My students arrive with a lack of some fundamental skills and resiliency, but we maintain hope. It’s motivating watching kids achieve things they think are impossible.”