February 2, 2018 Blog, Fund Program, Innovation

Q&A with Principal Efren Toledo

Principal Efren Toledo is a man on the move. From checking on his students to handling requests from parents, there is never a dull moment. Check out our interview with Principal Toledo to learn more about his work at Thorp Scholastic Academy.

The Fund: You were a pariticipant in our Summer Design Program in 2013. What was your experience like?

Efren Toledo: I participated in the Summer Design Program a couple years ago. It was a wonderful experience getting to know other creative principals in the system. One of the things that I try to do is to run Thorp as a small school, even though we’re fairly big. We tried to come up with different types of ideas based on what we need.

The Fund has been really good about helping people think outside of the box. For example, you don’t have to run your schedule the way everybody else does it, and you can come up with creative ways of allocating that time.

The Fund has also opened my eyes to the innovation of technology—using technology as a tool rather than just a cure-all. And we were doing that on our own, and that was what attracted me to The Fund: a lot of the innovations we were putting in place were ones that The Fund was supporting, and that’s a good thing. A lot of school systems need this innovation and those fresh ideas. We brought in a lot of technology to help with individualized instruction. The teachers blend in the technology to the study. We’re working on computerized lessons, and teachers are working with students—not using the computers as a babysitter. Technology is just a tool to enhance the learning and get the kids to self-regulate.

The Fund: Tell us more about Thorp Scholastic Academy.

ET: Thorp is a 100 percent lottery magnet school, so parents have to apply. There are 90 positions per kindergarten class. There are 25 applicants for every seat open. Thorp was one of the original magnet schools. We’re about 40-45 percent Hispanic, 30 percent White, 15-20 percent African American. We were around before charter schools were around, so we were one of the few choices in CPS other than the neighborhood school. We have 40 years as a magnet school catering to needs of kids, and that is the Thorp commitment.

The Fund: You focus a lot on movement within Thorp. How exactly do you go about that?

ET: One of the things I noticed is that the first thing schools try to do is medicate kids, sometimes just for being kids. We want them moving around constantly, so some of the things we’ve also incorporated are exercise balls because sometimes they need to fidget. It works out really well. This year we bought a couple of exercise bikes just for the kids who need to move.

The Fund: What is a typical day, if any?

ET: Normally I arrive around 7:30 after dropping my kids off at school. Then, I am greeting kids as they walk through the door. I grab a group of kids and create a group of greeters for the day. It’s a good way to start off. Parents are often waiting on you for multiple things, so every day is a little different, and time does get challenging. Kids are asking questions and everybody’s busy. I average about 11,000 steps a day because I have to move around. I don’t really have a desk. In fact, I have a standing desk because I know that I’ll be moving around. The greatest and hardest part of the job is that you have the highest of the highs and lowest of the lows within 5 minutes; kids gets the ability to do something in class but then someone gets hurt on the playground. The end of the day happens at 5 or 5:30 p.m., maybe later.

The Fund: What drives you?

ET: It’s the mission and it’s a calling to the job. What you realize is that everybody gets an education that changes lives. I wanted to be a teacher because I want to change the world. As a principal, I didn’t want to lose that, so how could I change a school so that that culture of innovation permeates everything? How do we make up a system so that we can copy and emulate that for other schools? We need to develop school leaders and bring a lot of ideas that they see into their own schools. I like seeing people reaching their potential and helping adults see beyond what they think they’re capable of doing.