“I was a product of CPS for several years. They provided me with an amazing education and great training,” she said. “Now I am a principal and I have to give back to that quiet little girl like me who has dreams and … wants to make a small dent in the world.”
For the students at Beard, Manda’s work constitutes much more than a “small dent,” as she has made major efforts to create a safe, comfortable space for her students, as well as to share the importance of supporting schools focused on special education.
Beard is located in the Norwood Park neighborhood of Chicago and maintains an enrollment of about 200 students in grades Pre-K-3. Manda has been principal at the school, which specifically serves students with all types of disabilities and preschool students, for four years now.
Manda originally came to Beard with the intention of challenging herself to adapt to a new environment. “I thought that the opportunity to work at Beard would be unbelievable great experience. It was a niche that I hadn’t had the opportunity to work with.” she said. “I’ve never on a large scale worked with children on the autism spectrum or with profound needs [and] I thought this would be an amazing new opportunity for learning.”
According to Manda, one successful method of engaging students with autism is community-based field trips that empower students and families to move outside of their comfort zones. “I believe strongly in community based field trips. The nature of autism is such that some children will have outbursts and will be loud, and it embarrasses our families,” she said. “[At Beard], you are who you are and you are loved for who you are. We try to create opportunities to go all over the city because many of our parents think it’s too hard to do on their own.” “The field trips we take students on have an academics embedded within them and are aligned to the curriculum and social emotional needs of the students. “
Manda attributes much of her leadership style and success to her experience in The Fund’s CPS Principal Fellowship. “[The Fellowship] was some of the best trainings I’ve ever had in my life … In hindsight, I was able to bring back a lot to the school,” she said. “[I] was being exposed to different professors and ideologies. The impacts have allowed me to continue the success of the school … I would absolutely do it again in a heartbeat if I could.”
In the future, Manda hopes to innovate further and share the successes she has achieved at Beard with in order to foster a sense of collaboration. “I always look to push the bar, not only for our kids, but [for those who] student teach or have observations happen here,” she said. “We want to share what we have learned [and] we want to help other schools implement programs like ours.”