Tamayo’s Tigers Have a New Roar
Principal Matthew Katz shifted the culture and approach to academics at Tamayo Elementary to create an engaging environment for students. Matthew has been at Tamayo since 2013, first as an assistant principal for two years and then as principal for the past three. Matthew’s first year at Tamayo was a challenge to say the least; the school was rated a Level 3, the lowest level of the Chicago Public Schools’ rating system. “Tamayo was struggling when I first started. If we didn’t rise up the ladder of the rating system, we could have been designated for closure,” he said. There are dozens of areas Matthew could have tackled to improve the school, but he decided to focus on school culture and academics.
“In terms of school culture,” Matthew said, “the first year we adopted a vision steeped in values that students could really understand. We worked to bring engaging experiences to students on a regular basis beyond the classroom.” Weekly community circles, the Roaring Readers program, a robust arts program and school trips have helped shaped this culture. Weekly community circles, which include families as well as the entire school, celebrate accomplishments and build a sense of community. Roaring Readers is a buddy reading program where an older student pairs with a younger student throughout the year to celebrate reading and build community across grade levels. When Matthew entered Tamayo there was no music program, but now students have after school offerings in music lessons, dance and theater. He said, “Creating those benchmark experiences for students creates a culture that everyone wants to be a part of.”
Improving academics proved a more nuanced challenge. Before Matthew started at Tamayo, the school was intensely focused on academics during the day and after school, but student achievement was still not sufficient to bring the school into good standing. Matthew said, “The problem was not the amount of academics our students were getting – it was how they were learning. We asked ourselves how to make school an engaging place for students and ensure our academics are efficient.” Instructional practices became a major focus in the academic shift for Tamayo. “Once we had the instructional practices in order, we were able to make sure our lessons, units and long term plans were high quality. We have spent the past few years developing those.”
Matthew set an optimistic tone and the rest of the staff regularly practiced applying it every morning. Students are greeted at the door by name and then the school comes together for weekly announcements and are reminded of goals for the month and year. “It makes a big difference for students who come in tired, had a bad morning or might not look forward to an academic challenge. It’s an opportunity for our students to be recognized as people,” Matthew said.
Tamayo is now a Level 1+ school. Matthew’s decision to focus on school culture and academics placed his school on a clear path to ensure future student success and performance.