For Yalil Nieves, her journey to becoming principal at Mary Gage Peterson Elementary began as a little girl living in Panama.
“Around 3rd or 4th grade, I got in trouble because I did my friend’s homework. But I just loved school! So I didn’t see it as doing this terrible thing.”
In fact, her love of learning was so clear that her teacher told her mother, “I hope you can send her to college one day.”
It was this hope for more education opportunities, as well as a desire to leave poverty, that influenced Nieves and her mother to immigrate to the US when she was 12.
But Nieves said that, at first, leaving her extended family behind and adjusting to a new culture and language actually had a negative effect: “That passion that I had for school as a little girl, quickly diminished, and I came to really dislike school.”
Fortunately, a strong bilingual program and incredible middle school teachers helped Nieves and her mother navigate the new system and rediscover her love of learning. With their advocacy, within three years, Nieves not only moved from a bilingual education program to an English only program, but also graduated valedictorian of her middle school.
“These are individuals who saw me for the person I was, acknowledged the experience and challenges I was having, and didn’t dismiss me. They sought to understand who I was and my background.”
Nieves said about her success, “It’s truly a testament to the dedication, love, passion and commitment that my middle school teachers poured onto me, and their ability to understand who I was and connect with my mother and empower her to make those decisions that she needed to make.”
Today, as principal at Peterson, it is impossible to separate Nieves’ leadership philosophy from this history — one of immigration, a hard-working single mother, English language learning, and impactful teachers who helped her through it all.
“It was my experience that drove me to education,” Nieves reflected joyfully. “And that’s what I want to offer to my kids: strong social emotional support and culturally relevant education where they feel empowered to have a voice.”
In practice, at Peterson, these supports look like 30 minutes of social and emotional learning a day, two in-house counselors instead of just one, and the implementation of restorative practices in the classroom.
These practices are crucial for ensuring the emotional well-being of the over 800 students who attend Peterson, the majority of whom are low-income and nearly 40% of whom have limited English skills.
But while some might view diversity as a challenge, Peterson thrives on it. For example, an annual International Night celebrates the cultures of students’ families, who collectively speak 49 different languages. In addition to arts and crafts and food and school materials translated into different languages, Nieves said of the night, “We’re all here in the same space embracing each other, wanting to learn from each other.”
But Nieves added, “Having International Night one day a year is not going to cultivate the environment and community we want for our kids. We actively have to plan and partner with our kids and families to give rise to our vision, College Graduates, Community Leaders and Cultural Ambassadors.”
Additionally, an ongoing project to foster inclusion and student empowerment is Peterson’s “pop-up libraries.” These spaces exist as several bookcases surrounded by comfy chairs, and are managed by students who developed norms for this space, and can go to their ELA teachers to ask for specific books.
Nieves said that allowing children to self-advocate for the books has “resulted in a library that’s truly diverse, reflecting the kids and community that we serve.”
But Peterson doesn’t just reflect the community; it also empowers it.
Years ago, Peterson surveyed parents about their needs and values, and subsequently established several programs to facilitate participation in their children’s education. Nieves said this is a core part of Peterson’s mission: “We seek ways to empower and partner with families so that we can collectively support the needs of our kids.”
Some of these programs include workshops about Chicago’s high school system and the US college admissions process. In another such program, the school partnered with Northeastern Illinois University to offer English classes to parents at Peterson, an effort supported by the school’s non-profit fundraising arm.
Nieves also draws on her own background to empower families.
“I grew up not feeling very comfortable speaking Spanish because of peoples’ reactions.” Nieves continued, “But here, I speak Spanish to families and kids. It’s the natural thing to do because we’re a community that values what everybody can bring to the table.”
This dual approach of parent and student empowerment has allowed Peterson to thrive academically; the school has received a Level 1 rating.
But for Nieves, ultimately, it’s about more than just that. The success of the Peterson community goes back to her own educational journey.
“This reminds me of home. This reminds me of my middle school,” she summed up. “It makes me happy. I’m just thankful and grateful that I’m here.”