Creating Inclusivity at Back of the Yards High School
Principal Patricia Brekke of Back of the Yards High School believes the atmosphere of inclusivity makes her school special. Patty’s 17 years of experience in the Back of the Yards neighborhood gave her unique insight into the community’s needs. Her strong connection to the community and focus on building relationships with community members inspired the planning of Back of the Yards High School. She built and sustained relationships with elementary school principals and parents. “It was a process of listening, rather than telling community members what the high school would offer,” says Patty.
Historically, the nearby elementary school counselors recommended students attend high schools outside the neighborhood. Patty wanted to discover what would attract parents and kids to stay and attend the new local neighborhood high school. Parents responded with concerns regarding the safety of their children and ensuring the high school would prepare them for college. Understandably, parents did not want their children to cross gang lines to attend high school or make long commutes across the city to access high-performing programs.
Patty incorporated all of these community responses to design the BYHS curriculum and extracurricular offerings. The high school offers rigorous college programs to all students in an International Baccalaureate (I.B.) inclusive model. “For us, it’s really about access so students do not have to be in the top tier to be in the diploma program. If they want it and they want to work at it that’s wonderful, and we let students experience that idea,” Patty said.
Patty used her extensive relationships in the neighborhood to hear what attributes community members most wanted in their new high school. By moving her network office into the basement of a local bank in Back of the Yards and regularly attending Local School Council meetings, Patty made explicit efforts to listen to her community. She put that into action by creating a wall to wall I.B. program instead of making it application-only (as some other high schools do). This decision reflected the community’s stated value of ensuring all students had access to advanced courses. “What we have been charged to do here by our community is to really make this a place where our kids are learning at high levels, and we take that very seriously,” said Patty.
Since the high school opened in 2013, the model of access and inclusivity has consistently demonstrated success. The first graduating class of Back of the Yards High School had a 91.3 percent graduation rate. “This is why access is important to us,” says Patty, “because we know that kids sitting in a college level course is going to prepare them for that level of thinking, that level of rigor and that level of participation.”
Now graduating its second cohort of seniors, Back of the Yards High School is demonstrating to schools across the city and schools with advanced programs how you can achieve high academic expectations and ensure all students feel welcomed and valued. Patty proves that a principal who listens to community input can truly design a school that supports students by providing an environment that promotes academic success for all.