September 4, 2020 20th Anniversary, Blog

Trust, Sense of Belonging, and Equity: The Mission of Network 8 Chief Alvarez

For Network 8 Chief Elizabeth Alvarez, her mission of bringing a sense of belonging to every student isn’t just about improving education outcomes—it’s also deeply personal.

“When I was young, as an elementary schooler, I didn’t feel that,” she admitted. “And so I want to make sure that anybody who walks through any of our doors in Network 8 immediately sees that smiling face that says, ‘How can I support you?’ They know, ‘I’m part of a family that’s going to take care of me.”

Getting to this point wasn’t always straightforward. When Alvarez became chief, she said that she felt pressure from the district to prioritize assessment data growth; at the time, the schools in Network 8 were only performing at the district’s 30th percentile. Alvarez pushed back on this data focus, arguing that what first needed to be addressed was the relationship between the schools and the district, which had eroded due to years of underfunding.

“They don’t trust you and they don’t trust each other,” Alvarez recalled about teachers at the time. 

Alvarez maintained that focusing on creating a positive and collaborative teacher and student culture was the most important step to building a foundation on which all future growth could be sustainable. This culture was created by focusing on a central vision: creating a place where everyone feels belonging. 

The results of this vision speak for themselves: Today, Network 8 performs close to the 70th percentile. 

Alvarez’s community approach to leadership has a history of yielding positive achievement results. Before being promoted to Network 8 Chief, Alvarez spent six years at the helm of John C. Dore Elementary located in Clearing, helping the school achieve a Level 1/1+ rating.

“It wasn’t something that was coming just from me. It was something coming from the teachers and everyone working together.” 

While principal at Dore, Alvarez and her team worked together to break down the Common Core standards into understandable chunks. Simple gestures, such as creating student-progress tracking flyers for parents to post on their refrigerators, helped contribute to a positive learning environment where families could feel involved in their children’s growth.

When overcrowding became an issue—in part because the school’s success began attracting more students—parents and community members formed a “Mission Addition” committee to lobby the district for a new building. When the district honored their request, then-Mayor Rahm Emanuel called Alvarez and gave her less than 24 hours to gather people at the school for a press conference.

The next day, Dore’s 75-person-capacity gym was so full of people, they had to open the doors. “We were in tears,” Alvarez said about the turnout and feeling of community triumph. 

Soon after, Alvarez was promoted to chief and never got a chance to lead in the new building. But her work wasn’t finished; it had just begun on a new level.

As network chief, leading roughly 18 schools, 11,000 students, and 1,500 teachers, Alvarez now wants to emphasize that having a sense of belonging and trust doesn’t mean avoiding uncomfortable conversations about education equity. In fact, it means “leaning into the discomfort” and having tough conversations about race and privilege that have been pushed aside for too long. 

Discussing principals’ responses to George Floyd’s death and #BlackLivesMatter protests, she explained: “There needs to be a statement from each and everyone of them that rejects racism, bottom line… If you don’t have a stance about this, you are in the wrong profession.” 

Alvarez’s conviction that education needs to be a site for justice does not end there. She has pushed her principals to ensure that history curriculum be more inclusive for people of color. Alvarez has also championed “grading for equity,” a concept she explored through professional development with The Fund, which examines how students of color can face classroom discrimination, and argues for more fairness and objectivity in grading.

With nearly 95% students in her network identifying as Latinx, Alvarez has also pushed for ensuring that the needs of emergent bilingual students and their families are always understood and met. 

Not even a global pandemic can hold her back: After learning that parents were starting to feel disconnected from their schools post-quarantine, Alvarez created “Coffee with the Chief,” a weekly virtual session for families to discuss the adjustment to remote learning, their struggles with the current moment, and ways that Network 8 can support them. Held in English and Spanish, up to 90 parents a week have participated. This act of equity, like so much of the work Chief Alvarez does, is only possible because of her community’s trust. 

Now, going into the school year, with so many unknowns, Alvarez has developed a new mantra to lead her community: “Be the Calm.”

“Anxiety during this time can be contagious—but calm is too. We need to maintain this,” she explained. The mission for her community this year is simple but powerful: “We need to ‘Be the Calm’ as we support one another in feeling a sense of belonging.”