In this Q&A with Marie Garza-Hammerlund, we learn about her journey to becoming principal of Albany Park Multicultural Academy. She also discusses her participation in The Fund’s Professional Learning Communities and Summer Design Program. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
The Fund: How did you end up pursuing a career in education?
Principal Garza-Hammerlund: I am a native Chicagoan and a Chicago Public Schools high school graduate. While in college, I realized I wanted to become a teacher. I was lucky enough to obtain a job at the elementary school located in the neighborhood where I grew up.
The Fund: What neighborhood did you grow up in?
Principal Garza-Hammerlund: The Ashburn neighborhood on the Southwest Side near Bogan High School. I began working at Dawes Elementary, which is right behind it, and taught sixth grade language arts and science. While there, my love of middle school began, and I’ve just always felt really passionate about helping kids see their potential and be their best selves. I’ve always wanted to help the kids who need help most — the kids who saw the least in themselves.
I earned my first master’s in instructional technology, I was genuinely interested in bringing technology and a constructivist learning model into the classroom. This was one of the things I most enjoyed about teaching science; I like helping students build their own learning.
After 10 years in the classroom, I shifted to teaching library and technology skills. I also coached alongside teachers around technology integration and content areas like math and science. I taught and coached at Sandoval Elementary on the Southwest Side for eight years.
A close colleague I worked with at Sandoval joined Albany Park Multicultural Academy as the assistant principal. I was lucky enough to then join her at Albany Park as an instructional coach. Soon after, I became assistant principal and eventually principal. Albany Park is a long way from the South Side, but it’s so amazing to craft what we do around our niche of students.
The Fund: What has been your experience with The Fund?
Principal Garza-Hammerlund: The previous principal, Hiliana León, connected me with The Fund. She participated in the Cahn Fellows Program through Columbia University in 2018. I was her ally in the program. When she left, the first thing I did as a new principal was join a Professional Learning Community. That really helped me connect with other principals around a like-minded topic. I saw ways that we could work together, problem-solve, and focus on seeing the results of whatever it was we were working on, be it student achievement or teacher professional development. It became an important component for my own growth. I was always reflecting, what does my school need? What does my staff need?
The Fund: Can you share about your experience with The Fund’s Design Challenge?
Principal Garza-Hammerlund: The Design Challenge certainly pushed me out of my comfort zone. It was during a time we were coming through a year of practicing survival skills more often than thriving ones. I was really nervous about doing it. I said to myself, “This was a place where you could grow.” I was very proud that I pushed myself to revisit and scrutinize the work that we had done, and look at areas where we could strengthen data collection. Also thinking, we should also strengthen the questions we ask ourselves about that data, and question assumptions about our school community, our students, the staff — and assumptions I was making about myself.
That was an eye-opening experience for me. I learned to question these assumptions we were making and really peel back the layers. I encouraged and supported the team to accomplish the same. This helped us look beyond our assumptions to make better decisions for improved student learning.
Albany Park’s 2022 Design Challenge entry presented a program in which English language learners and newcomer students were given more autonomy in the classroom and in their learning experience. The program blended students’ needs with students’ choices to create a more effective, inclusive, collaborative school environment. Learn more about their Design Challenge project in our report Equity-Focused Innovation in Chicago’s Public Schools.