At Julian High School, Principal Myron Hester Empowers Students to Empower the Community
Speaking with Principal Myron Hester from Julian High School on Chicago’s Far South Side, the first thing that becomes obvious is the joy he brings to leading his students.
“There’s an energy you get when you work with students,” he explained, fondly recalling his days as a biology teacher. “There’s a passion that comes with it that just keeps you thriving, and you become a workaholic.”
But Hester’s work has not always been easy. A native of Roseland, where Julian High School is located, Hester has seen firsthand the ways in which resources and local businesses have left his community, which he describes as once “thriving” and “magnificent.”
It’s in this context that Hester envisioned Julian as more than just a school with a high-quality, “holistic education experience.” Hester wanted Julian to be a school that students “can feel proud about.”
“You want kids to feel great. You want kids to feel special when they walk through the door.” He continued, “If we can provide that type of environment, then our kids can thrive and be successful and graduate.”
This positive culture and mindset mattered deeply for the schools’ academic success. Since Hester’s principalship, graduation rates have risen from 69% to 77%, the rate of seniors earning early college credentials has increased from 6% to over 40%, and now 95% of freshmen are on track to graduate.
Hester also credited this progress to a motto: “Eliminate excuses so that we can move forward.”
“Eliminate excuses” doesn’t mean a no-excuses, punishment-driven approach to leadership. Rather, it means removing systematic barriers to success and ensuring that students and teachers have proper support.
“If a kid can’t come to school, what do we have to do to get them to school? The kids don’t have access to technology; what do we have to do to get them technology?” Hester explained. “Teachers, what do you need, tell us what you need, because I don’t want any excuses why we can’t have high-quality instruction in the classroom.”
For Hester, eliminating excuses also starts with himself.
“You lead by example,” he stressed. “Most people probably say I’m the most laidback principal they’ve ever meet, but I’m also one of the hardest working principals… You train your staff on how and what you want. And most of the time your staff will take on your characteristics.”
And when staff are challenged and supported to do better, the results can be extraordinary. In the last few years, Julian has qualified for multiple grants to transform the support the school offers to its students.
One recently awarded grant will help the school design a system to support some graduating seniors, even throughout college.
Another grant—won thanks to the collective efforts of staff and community members—allowed Julian to start a Fine and Performing Arts program for the 2020-2021 school year, making it the Far South Side’s only school to offer this pathway. Hester hopes that bringing Fine Arts to Julian will allow students to express themselves creatively and showcase multiple intelligences.
Hester imagined this programmatic triumph as an opportunity to empower the whole community. In bringing a Fine Arts program to the Far South Side, Hester hopes to collaborate with other schools and community organizations to expand access to arts more generally. For artistic performances, Julian can even collaborate with local businesses and vendors to stimulate economic activity.
“And our students can be the leaders and the voice to make that happen,” Hester stressed. “Our students are very intelligent and they know exactly what they need and what they want. It’s a matter of shaping it, cultivating it, and allowing them to thrive. And I’m ready to do that work here at Julian. My staff is ready for that work.”
Hester’s work always returns to an ultimate vision: “How, as an institution, can we be a beacon in this neighborhood?”
Through joy, hard work and empowering students, Principal Hester and his community will continue to figure it out.