Haines Elementary School: Courageous Conversations in Chinatown

In the fastest-growing Chinatown in the world, one school was getting ready to welcome back all of its students in the fall of 2022.

“Everyone is going to soar this year,” John C. Haines Elementary School Principal Catherine “Amy” Moy-Davis said when we interviewed her prior to the start of the 2022-23 school year. She wears her passion and excitement for her community on her sleeve. “I’m using the word ‘soar.’ I used to say everyone was ‘going to make it.’ But I think the students at Haines soar.”

Born and raised in Chinatown, Amy attended Whitney M. Young Magnet High School and knew early on that she wanted to pursue a career in education. With less than 10 Asian principals working in the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) system, she stresses the significance of being a role model for kids that look like and can relate to her; 84% of Haines students identify as Asian American.

This school has borne the brunt of some unique challenges in recent years. Just 10% of students returned to Haines in fall 2020, one of the lowest return rates in CPS. In response, Amy modified the school environment, prioritizing safety measures and accessibility to address parental concerns. This included regular virtual meetings to help parents with technical issues as classrooms incorporated new technology. Additionally, she ensured that all relevant documents were on the school’s website — and that all updates were translated in Chinese for the sake of bilingual and immigrant families — in order to more easily handle the confusion of the ever-adapting curriculum.

At the same time, Haines’ school community experienced xenophobia and racism, mirroring national trends amid the COVID-19 pandemic. For Amy, anti-Asian sentiment was not just an out-of-school issue. To support the community, she hosted monthly virtual chats with Haines families to hear their concerns and to coach them through the uncertain times. These included discussions of the unique trauma that Haines students were being put through and how parents could navigate those conversations with their children.

Prioritizing the mental health of her students and teachers alike, Amy is also partnering with the Midwest Asian Health Association (MAHA), Project Vision, and Communities in Schools of Chicago in the 2022-23 academic year. These organizations are facilitating dialogues, providing resources, and creating a system of mental support at Haines for all those affected by the past few tumultuous years.

Attendance at Haines has increased this school year, and Amy attributes that in part to these investments in student and family mental health. She said that she hopes this will increase parental awareness and trust, in addition to academic performance as students learn more emotional self-regulation, empathy, coping strategies, and problem-solving skills.

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