September 23, 2019 How I Lead

Instructional excellence starts with student leadership

We’re continuing to explore the different roles principals play in their schools and communities through our “How I Lead” series. 

Principal Docilla Pollard’s office is covered in gratitude. Every available surface – her desk, her bulletin board, her walls – feature photos of happy students, flashing toothy grins, and earnest student art; one student even wrote “Thank You, Mrs. Pollard!” before signing their masterpiece.

The artwork, the photos, the notes – they all reveal something important about Pollard: She works hard to ensure her students have the best education possible.

Pollard has been the principal of Carnegie Elementary School in Woodlawn since 2012. Before her tenure, the elementary school was on academic probation.

Seven years after the start of Pollard’s principalship, Carnegie has moved off probation and into good standing. It is also renowned as a regional gifted school and for its middle school International Baccalaureate program.

Carnegie students have demonstrated so much growth in large part to Pollard’s incredible instructional leadership. As a former assistant principal and literacy coach, she has brought a lot to the table.

“My overall vision is to have each student prepared for the best high schools in the city of Chicago and move onto college,” Pollard explained. She fuses her vision into instruction, staying up to date on best practices for such success.

“My first mission was to transform instruction in reading and mathematics,” she said. “That required us to look at current educational trends and shift to digital literacy.”

Technology is always advancing, and instructional practices need to be modified to keep in pace with our ever-changing times.

To get Carnegie’s gears moving in that direction, Pollard partnered with University of Chicago’s engineering department. Through partnership and parent donations, the school was able to acquire the resources it needed to shift its instructional focus.

“Every student from pre-kindergarten to first grade has an iPad. Every student from second to eighth grade has a Chromebook. Classrooms have Smart Boards. Every teacher has access to an iPad and a laptop,” Pollard said.

She’s gone a long way to help teachers adjust to a curriculum shift to digital literacy, and they’ve all been very eager to learn, according to Pollard.

What’s powerful in Pollard’s approach is that she believes that everyone has the potential to be a leader. She doesn’t let anyone stay in their comfort zone and pushes them to aim higher.

“If I’m a true instructional leader, then I am building talent within my building,” she explained. “All of my teachers have been trained on a number of our resources. I’ve gone and brought my teachers to a lot of professional development opportunities. It’s just important that they keep their skills as current as possible.”

Pollard dedicates a lot of her time to her instructional leadership team. She spends almost all her schoolday in classrooms for observations. She has weekly and monthly check-ins with her faculty to offer feedback. To ensure collaborative feedback, they even have peer-to-peer evaluations.

What’s made the switch so much easier is that students were partners in the process, contributing to even more growth in digital learning.

Pollard said, “Technology is really what the kids love. They have the best pieces of technology with them every single day: cell phones. I thought, ‘How can we capitalize off resources that they already have and embed them within our instruction?’”

Even students have informed instruction by exploring their technology in diverse ways.

“Once I planted the seed with the teachers, the teachers planted seeds with their students. Now students are saying, ‘Hey, look at it this way.’”

Collaboration between students and teachers has facilitated tremendous communication and productive interaction in classrooms. Pollard said, “The interaction and student engagement were just huge. Students were using academic vocabulary in their conversations.”

Pollard recalled a moment during a visit to a fourth-grade classroom. Students were learning less-than and greater-than. The teacher would send students activities from her iPad to theirs, and students would send their responses back to the teacher.

Pollard pretended to not understand the lesson and asked a student nearby for help. “[The student] looks at me, and she goes, ‘You’re the principal, and you don’t know less-than, greater-than?’” And then proceeded to teach her principal in great detail and with much ease.

To say the least, Pollard’s leadership has made a great impact on Carnegie’s faculty and staff. Alums often come back to visit and express their gratitude.

According to Pollard, one said, “Thank you for never giving up on me. You saw my potential, and I’ve only gone up from here.”


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