September 16, 2019 How I Lead

An open-door policy: How an Austin principal has made his school a restorative haven for his students

This post is the first in our “How I Lead” series, which explores the different roles principals play in their schools and communities. 

A powerful mural greets Michele Clark Magnet High School’s visitors: With determined eyes looking beyond school grounds, two students ponder their futures, as eagles soar from their shoulders and keys hang around their necks.

They have what they need to unlock their potential. Principal Charles Anderson’s mission is to have his students realize that they have what they need too.  As a community member himself, Anderson knows the importance in this message and puts it front-and-center each day at Michele Clark.

He also knows that students need a safe space and consistent support without having to go too far, so he puts forth extraordinary efforts in making Michele Clark a center where the entire community feels welcome to build, collaborate and become better together.

That matters for students – and their families – because Michele Clark is located on the northwest side of Chicago’s Austin community, an area that has been historically afflicted with high crime rates and has carried a violent reputation for decades.

Many families face complex hardships, so some students don’t have access to resources that they need in order to cope with trauma, which can make academic success difficult to attain.

“It’s important to me that our entire community knows that Michele Clark is an open door for them. I don’t want anyone to feel like they need to go outside of our community to get the support that they need,” he said.

During his four years at Michele Clark, Anderson has partnered with over 15 community organizations. Many of them aim to teach students the life skills they need to navigate life at home and beyond.

We focus on teaching students to practice having courageous, restorative conversations so that they can go home and do it,” he said. “The bigger goal for me then is to change our neighborhood by getting our whole community involved.”

For example, Anderson has made a notable partnership with the Allan Houston Legacy Foundation. With them, Anderson created a leadership development course under The FISLL Project.

“FISLL stands for Faith, Integrity, Sacrifice, Leadership, and Legacy. Students get a chance to learn all about those fundamentals, and then they learn how to go out and teach them and how to work with their peers and teachers in classrooms,” Anderson said. “If a teacher is struggling with some of their students, FISLL mentors will support the teacher by having restorative conversations with both parties so that each has the other’s perspective.”

Such projects encourage students to have a sense of agency. They understand that they have the power to effectively communicate and advocate for themselves to, in turn, make an impact on their community outside of school.

“It’s not about the adults making decisions for the students. It’s about the kids saying, ‘This is what we really want.’ Students have a voice and are a part of their learning. It’s taken this school to another level for us.”

Their efforts have not gone unnoticed. Michele Clark was recently awarded a Civic Culture and Commitment Award by Chicago Public Schools and The Obama Foundation. The award recognizes schools that champion civics education through creating authentic civic learning experiences in and out of the classroom.

But above all, Anderson just wants his students to be excited to go to Michele Clark.

“Each day, I wake up thinking about what we can do to get students to come to school. I think, ‘What can I do differently to get the kids to come in and go ‘WOAH?’ We’ve had live DJs. We’ve had surprise field days with inflatables and games,” Anderson explained.

Students are allowed to come in on the weekends for open gym. During the summers, students are welcome to hold Xbox tournaments.

Most important, students and families are proud to be a part of the Michele Clark community. All clubs and teams have Eagle athletic apparel, and even parents wear Michele Clark “Mom” and “Dad” hats. This is vital to Anderson.

“If we were not a part of the community, then I wouldn’t be here. Seriously. That’s the only reason why I’m here.”

Principal Anderson is serving as a Professional Learning Community leader during the 2019-20 school year.