For some, these questions might be difficult to answer. But at Social Justice High School (affectionately known as “SOJO” to its community), students start grappling with them as soon as they walk through the door.
“Freshman year is designed to get students by the end of the year to say, ‘This is what I want my legacy to be at SOJO and beyond,’” explained Principal Omar Chilous. “We build on that foundation each successive year to graduation.”
But it’s impossible to understand SOJO’s mission—what students and educators are building toward—without understanding the school’s own legacy.
SOJO’s very foundation was an act of social justice at work. For years, community activists in South Lawndale had advocated for a new high school campus to relieve overcrowding at nearby Farragut High School. Things finally came to head in 2001, when activists went on a 19-day hunger strike. The district agreed to build a new high school, Little Village Lawndale High School. Today, the campus houses four schools, including Social Justice.
“We’re the fire school,” Chilous said proudly. “The same fervor that inspired hunger strikers to rally and ensure they got access to high-quality, equitable education in their community… We are supposed to continue that journey, that fire, that legacy.”
This “fire” is reflected in the school’s curriculum: Each year, students complete a capstone project about social justice. Freshman develop argumentation and writing skills alongside their self-identities. Sophomores create a cross-curricular presentation about an issue of inequity. Juniors participate in a history fair. Seniors, meanwhile, complete “fire projects.”
“Seniors have to do a formal research paper and/or project,” Chilous explained. “But then they have to do something. In order for them to fulfill the requirements of the course facilitated through Social Studies, English, and Senior Seminar, they have to organize a peaceful protest, go to a City Hall meeting, get on record at a CPS board meeting, write and record a PSA, etc.”
“We want to make sure we’re not breaking any laws,” Chilous chuckled. “But we want to give kids the space, as John Lewis said, to do ‘good trouble.’”
Principal Chilous’ educational philosophy, which drives this innovative curriculum, has evolved throughout his 13 years in education, which include 11 in the district, two of which have been at SOJO. It can be summed up in one word: self-empowerment.
“The purpose of education in 2020 and beyond is to keep your own power to say no.”
The “power to say no,” Chilous shared, means being in a position where you have options to choose from when deciding about your future. Chilous tells students that multiple opportunities will only present themselves if you are prepared and qualified enough to even be considered—and a strong education is key to opening those doors.
But the goal of self-empowerment is ultimately about more than just the individual; it’s about emboldening entire communities.
“Our goal at SOJO is post-secondary success—absolutely,” Chilous explained. “But I think what this school was really organized around 15 years ago, that I believe now is just kind of crystallizing across the country and Chicago, is this idea of equity. Not just being aware of the issues and this idea of social justice, but doing something about it.”
For his part, Chilous supports social justice by uplifting and empowering his staff: “I want to be known from my teachers and staff as someone who supported them at the highest level through the provision and maintenance of systems and structures that will outlive my tenure at SOJO and be improved or expanded upon to prioritize what we need to do for students.”
Chilous is also dedicated to his own professional development, currently getting a PhD in Educational Leadership and Superintendency at Concordia University Chicago, researching how students in the juvenile justice system can be successfully transitioned into post-secondary pursuits.
At the heart of his work, however, remains SOJO. Chilous is grateful for the chance to lead the school—an opportunity he never anticipated. In fact, at the beginning of his career, Chilous never planned to be a school leader. It was only after serving as a teacher and Instructional Support Leader on the South and West sides of Chicago that he realized that he wanted to affect change at a larger scale.
Optimistic but unsure about school leadership, Chilous completed his principal endorsement in 2015, with the intention of receiving the credential, while still waiting for another three or four years to make the eventual transition to an assistant principal role.
Everything changed when he got a phone call in September 2018, asking him to apply for a position as interim principal of SOJO. Having never served as a school administrator, and having never worked in a school setting with majority Latinx or Hispanic students, Chilous was initially unsure about applying. But after working hard to put himself in a position where he had the power to say “no,” he finally told the school community “yes.”
“The ALSC decided to take a chance on me, and the rest is history.”
Chilous said his professional journey from teacher to administrator is a perfect example of what he tells his students about taking control of your own future and maximizing your opportunities: “Had I not made the decision to earn a principal endorsement to maximize future opportunities that may have presented themselves, even while I was unsure about school leadership, I would have never received the opportunity in the first place.”
“Whether we’re talking about our own journey, or whether we’re talking about social justice issues, you must keep the power and participate and engage in your own narrative.”
Upon being asked what he would describe as his proudest moment of being principal at SOJO, Chilous reflected back to June 2020, during the COVID-19 pandemic, immediately following the murder of George Floyd.
“Given the rioting that happened in the city of Chicago, some community neighborhoods of color—Little Village and North Lawndale being two of them—just completely shut down.”
Chilous described the period as tense in his community, even adding that some Black people were attacked in Little Village.
But he recalled, “Within three or four days, there was a Black and Brown Unity March in Little Village. We didn’t sponsor it in any way as a school—but two Latinx students and one Black student from SOJO organized it, along with a few students from the other campus schools, and we had maybe 300 people show up. They even got police escorts. It was completely student-led, and it was a result of a real problem that they saw in their own community that they could actually do something about.”
He spoke with pride about seeing students take the things they learned in school and put them into action: “They decided to do that for their community and have that be part of their legacy. And that’s something I’m completely proud of because it was not prompted or sponsored by the school whatsoever. That is the type of student or adult leader we want to send out into the world.”
Although the march took place months ago, Chilous is excited for his students to be at the forefront of more difficult conversations and meaningful actions—both in and out of the classroom. He will continue to make that possible by helping craft the school’s culture, expectations and legacy.
“Our school wide mantra is turning passion into action,” he said. “We should be leading this important work and serving as examples for other schools in the district. People should know who we are, not just by our passion, but through our action.”
Omar Chilous participated in The Fund’s PLC program during the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years.