August 24, 2018 Media

Back to School in Bucktown

Sarah O’Connell is entering her third year as director at Chicago International Charter School (CICS) Bucktown, managed by Distinctive Schools. She first spent nine years teaching second, third and fourth graders at CICS Bucktown before taking on the role of assistant director four years ago and later becoming school director. She always dreamed of being an educator and recounts asking her mom for Christmas gifts from the teacher supply store.

As school director, Sarah’s loyalties lie with her students and teachers. “Every decision I make is for the students and the school and the teachers,” she says. Sarah knows what it’s like to be on “the front-lines” teaching in classrooms, and she seeks to improve the experience of her students and teachers daily. With this frame for decision making and CICS’s network-wide allowance for autonomy, Sarah can “go with [her] ideas and be “innovative” in the methods she brings to CICS Bucktown.

Sarah’s biggest push as school director has been towards personalized learning. This encompasses everything from training teachers to creating flexible learning environments. “Our classrooms aren’t always desks in rows,” Sarah says of the model; “teachers design the classrooms to fit the needs of the students.” She adds that the ability to dive into students’ individual needs has helped build relationships across the campus, contributing to CICS Bucktown’s “positive and collaborative” climate.

Sarah states that at CICS Bucktown “culture is king,” and the culture that developed around the personalized learning model is further supported by a campus-wide awareness of students’ social-emotional needs. Sarah and her staff are firm believers in supporting the whole child, noting that “If a student is sad or having a bad day, how are they going to concentrate on fractions?” To help students handle what is going on outside of their academic lives, teachers begin every school day with a “morning meeting” where kids can share out whatever is on their minds.

In the middle school grades, personalized learning is based on Distinctive Schools Middle School Summit Learning Platform. The online tool allows students to track their progress throughout the year and teaches them how to prioritize particular areas of study. Sarah says the platform is “useful and extremely challenging,” as it allows students to “access relevant topics” while teaching them skills like time management and how to revise a paper.

The platform has proven successful: Sarah reports improved test scores and that her middle schoolers are “taking ownership of their learning,” and becoming more independent. She is excited to extend the platform to her fifth graders this year. Sarah’s goals for CICS Bucktown don’t stop there though: she wants “to create a learning environment where students are challenged and able to master grade level standards.” “That is going to come with personalized learning and creating experiences that they’re going to remember,” she articulates.

Further, Sarah is inspired by innovation and hopes to see technology continually infused into personalized learning. Sarah knows the world is changing and “students need different skills than 20 years ago.” She has already turned her focus to providing students the skills they need to be successful in this new era.