In a classroom in the Galewood community, a middle schooler presents to a room full of peers and teachers on a self-selected topic: a history of memes. At Sayre Language Academy, students have the opportunity to explore passion projects – teaching themselves how to sew, cook, and even play the piano, and then sharing with their classmates – through “Genius Hour.”
Principal Folasade Adekunle believes early education’s role is to expose children to a variety of interests and possibilities – Genius Hour is one example of how she lives her belief. The daughter of Nigerian immigrants, Principal Adekunle’s mother urged her to get a teaching certificate while she was studying political science at Northwestern University.
“When you come to America, you’re very much like ‘I can do whatever I want to,’ which is why your parents came here in the first place. But they don’t actually believe that,” Adekunle joked.
After pursuing a doctorate at UIC’s Center of Urban Leadership and finishing her principal residency at the Chicago Leadership Collaborative, Principal Adekunle knew her end goal: running her own school.
When she first drove through Galewood, Principal Adekunle could hardly believe she was still in Chicago. Reminiscent of her hometown of Mount Carmel, she saw parents weigh public schools against the prestige of private institutions.
She wanted families to “vote with their feet” and believe in their community enough to send their children to their local public schools. Her initial introduction to Sayre revealed a school fraught with teacher retention issues and enrollment uncertainty. Yet she saw what teachers and parents aspired to make Sayre: “a little corner of possibility.”
Now in her seventh year at Sayre, Principal Adekunle consistently emphasizes innovation and improvement. She seizes opportunities to improve her leadership, including participating in The Fund’s Professional Learning Communities (PLCs) and the Chicago Principal Fellowship. In 2022, she led an educator team from Sayre to compete in The Fund’s Spring Design Challenge.
Sayre’s Spring Design Challenge presentation, “Minding Our Gap”, imagines a classroom that makes sure Black male students feel seen, heard, and affirmed. Having an educational standard of excellence means that educators often have to figure out what works for different people. For Principal Adekunle, the lack of relatability for her Black male students is a question of specialization.
“At Sayre, we have an opportunity to unpack our practice and to see what we do in service of and sometimes in spite of our Black students,” she told the judges. “We have an opportunity to look up from our data charts and into the faces that we serve.”
Sayre won the Design Challenge and its $10,000 prize. Under Principal Adekunle’s leadership, Sayre continues to thrive. It is an IB candidate school, offering STEM, and arts integration, and it boasts ample after-school programs and community partners.