A sea of maroon and grey polo-ed freshmen arrived at Gage Park High School this school year. They’re donning the standard, nondescript school uniform: polo and slacks. And yet nothing could make them stand out more.
“We use our student achievement [and] college and career-oriented atmosphere to encourage [students] to be more engaged in school [and] to get out of the polo,” Principal Tamika Ball explained. “The more clubs you’re a part of, the more sports you’re a part of [means] you don’t have to wear our uniform polo.”
Freshmen quickly discover that participation and engagement are as à la mode as letterman jackets. Eager to swap their polo for a brightly colored tee or jersey, students join sports teams, clubs, and student government in swarms.
One such club is the Student Voice Committee. Facilitated by civics teachers and in partnership with the Mikva Challenge, Student Voice meetings are yet another way Principal Ball increases engagement at Gage Park.
“We talk about things that are going well in our school; we talk about some of our challenges and we develop an action plan together… Students lead that work because peers like to listen to their peers,” Principal Ball explained.
Through Student Voice community projects, students have promoted the 2020 Census, mental health initiatives, and food drives; this coming year they’ll be tackling vaccinations.
Student Voice is one of many ways that Principal Ball works to give students a holistic and experiential education — offering them agency in decision-making mirrors formative opportunities she once had in high school.
Ball grew up in the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago where her parents encouraged her to test into Lindblom Math and Science Academy. At Lindblom, Ball noticed she was afforded more opportunities than her peers — and not just material opportunities like more complex assignments and classroom resources, but intangible, experiential opportunities like college tours and internships that helped cultivate her affinity for leadership.
“They took me to New Orleans and Atlanta,” Ball recalled. “That college tour — it was a historically Black college tour — is what changed my life.”
Her time at Lindblom continues to inform her work today: “[When] I walked those halls, I understood my purpose… I know what my high school did for me. And I want to ensure that my students have those same experiences.” It drove her to embark on her principalship after 11 years of teaching.
So she’s striven to impress upon her students the true nature of her work and why it matters: “I tell my students, I work for them,” Ball said. There’s no time to waste: Students have “concrete decisions” to make, Ball affirms, and high school is the ideal time for intervention.
Under Principal Ball’s leadership, Gage Park has transformed with updated curriculum, AP Capstone programming, differentiated and culturally-relevant instruction, and regular community meetings in order to provide students a more robust academic experience tailored to their interests and needs. But progress isn’t always linear or radical. Many schools can likely relate: Despite persevering through online learning the past year, many schools saw attendance rates fall.
But Principal Ball isn’t discouraged by bumps in the road: “I believe that small progress matters,” she said. “Sometimes we want to go so big right away. But [it’s] those bite-sized nuggets [of progress] that are going to get you closer to your overall goal.”
She demonstrates this particularly through one of the school’s most popular clubs: Students with Academic Growth (appropriately abbreviated as “SWAG”). The emphasis is on student efficacy: each quarter students analyze their attendance and grades and set goals for improvement. So long as they maintain at least 95% attendance and a C average they are eligible to join; if not, membership reopens every quarter.
It’s Ball’s way of reminding students that their lives are not a hit or miss; every day and every quarter is a new chance to succeed.
And hopefully now that freshmen have arrived they take this in stride — skillfully swapping polos for a rainbow of crew necks and jackets as a token for their motivation and curiosity. Because at Gage Park, those traits demonstrate belonging more than uniforms ever could.