Turnaround: How One Principal and Her School Got a Fresh Start

“Education is not ‘one size fits all.’ Everyone is on the path to excellence, but everyone might take a different route,” says Principal Tiffany Brown of Wendell Smith Elementary School. In her own words, Tiffany walks us through the path she and the Wendell Smith community took toward excellence.

Roseland, Born and Bred

I’ve lived my whole life right here in Roseland, just up the hill from Wendell Smith. I think that part of my success has been that I grew up in the same neighborhood as my students. We speak the same language – you can’t tell me anything I don’t know or haven’t already experienced.

I’m graduate of Chicago’s public schools – I attended Chicago High School for Agricultural Sciences (CHSAS) and Chicago State University, where I studied Chemistry. Life wasn’t easy and by the time I graduated, I already had two children and my mother passed away shortly after. When I think back, it feels like life just happened around me, but through all of this, I knew I could rely on education to lift me up. Upon reflection, it’s been one supportive educator after another who has turned my life around and pushed me to be successful.

Wendell Smith in 2012

When I first started as principal, Wendell Smith had been a low-performing school for over nine years and had been designated for an internal turnaround. I was brought in to lead this change and knew that it had to occur in a number of different ways. It started off by creating strong mission and vision statements. When my team and I sat down to create the turnaround framework, we wanted to be very clear about the academic culture and the social and emotional supports.

We started with research on effective schooling. From there, we created our own framework that fit our community and student population. It’s not a “one size fits all” strategy, and we had to go back to the drawing board a number of times. At the end of the day, we knew we had lives in our hands.

Wendell Smith Today

It’s been a long journey, but we have moved from Level 3 to Level 1+ – the highest possible rating for a Chicago public school – our attendance has increased to 96 percent, our enrollment is up and our suspensions have decreased over time. But I did not do this by myself; I have such a phenomenal staff. Everyone is important, from the front door to the back door. We have not achieved all of our goals – there is still a lot of work to do – but we are definitely still creating great learning opportunities for students. I didn’t initially set my sights on academic growth or achievement. I set my sights on creating great learning opportunities for students. Academic achievement has been the byproduct of that.

Personalized Learning

Now that we have seen success, we’re trying to push it to the next level. In this upcoming year, we are taking the time to really find out what kids want to learn and how they can monitor their own growth. We’re going to try personalized learning to give kids choice and voice. We’re redesigning the classroom to meet the needs of the learners with flexible seating, cooperative learning stations and technology, like Smart TVs and Chromebooks.

Lifelong Learner

I’m back in school again. I’m working on my Educational Leadership doctorate at National Louis University. One thing that I tell myself, my children and my teachers is that I must remain a constant learner and current in my field. I want to know everything there is to know about new educational research.

I’m also so excited about the Chicago Principals Fellowship. When I applied, I knew I would have the opportunity to be a change agent. Whenever there is an opportunity to add more tools to my tool belt, I’m going to be a part of it. On top of being able to collaborate with educators, I’m looking forward to being part of those conversations around data. It will be interesting to view policy at a district level and then see how it affects individual schools.

Remember who I’m working for

On tough days, I remember I’m here to create options for kids. I remember for whom I’m working. Students here at Wendell Smith have a voice and they don’t mind using it. They have heart, grit and they get it done. Living and working in Roseland for most of my life, I have seen the community grow and change. But one thing that I can say is that the parents really advocate and want change. At the end of the day, Roseland families want the best for their kids and our community.