How do you best prepare students for tomorrow? Give them options

As an educator, Fatima Cooke has one goal: To give her students options.

Every decision she makes as principal at Sumner Math and Science Community Academy is informed by that single, simple objective. “It drives my every day: ensuring kids have access to a high-quality education and as many experiences as possible so that they can make informed choices about their lives,” she explained.

The key to that, Fatima has found, is bridging the gap between what her students know and what they need to know. Or as she put it: “I talk with a lot of high school principals because I always want to know what’s missing. When they get to high school, where are students struggling?”

Sumner has a strong math and science curriculum – hence the name – but Fatima’s younger students often struggle with reading and writing. Fatima has already worked with her teachers to change reading instruction across the school using the popular balanced literacy framework, which blends phonics and whole language learning. Now she has set her sights on improving students’ writing skills.

“With technology,” Fatima explained, “sometimes authentic writing goes away. We want to breathe life into students’ writing.”

Like many schools across Chicago, Sumner is grappling with a decline in enrollment. Years ago, it was one of the largest elementary schools on the West Side, holding nearly 2,000 students. Now, it’s down to 283. Fewer students can mean fewer resources. But Fatima, who became the school’s principal in 2016, has quickly learned how to marshal the resources she has effectively — and how to find the ones she doesn’t.

At Sumner, a legion of education organizations keeps students engaged— and learning — with summer camps, after-school programs and field trips. Eighth-graders visit University of Illinois at Chicago once a month to use its 3D printing lab, and third- through fifth-graders attend a 21st Century summer camp they where learn more about engineering with Project SYNCERE. AARP provides tutors for student in kindergarten through third grade, and Turning the Page hosts “family nights” for all students and their families.

Teachers also get support from outside organizations. Through a literacy grant funded by the Steans Family Foundation, Fatima is able to provide professional development for teachers on the components of balanced literacy. The grant also provides two “interventionists” who are in the building every day, pulling groups of students for extra reading support.

“For me, as a principal, it is about finding everything that is offered out there,” Fatima said. “How can we ensure — through partnerships or through sharing with parents — that our kids have a similar experience as kids down the street from us? In a different part of the city?”

Fatima’s own background drives her tireless efforts to give her students every opportunity. She knows well how the power of choice can transform a student’s life; she didn’t always want to be an educator. After graduating from Simeon Career Academy on Chicago’s South Side, she studied computer information sciences and got a job in the same field. It took time — and a short stint as a CPS sub — to find her true passion.

Fatima’s persistent presence in her school and her community — “I am everywhere” — is a reminder to students that when they have a strong command of math and science as well as reading and writing, their opportunities are endless. They can pursue their passions and use their talents to improve the lives of others, just as she did.

“It’s important for kids to see themselves in you,” Fatima said. “I want my students to find out 1) What they’re good at, and 2) How they can use that thing to give back. I want them to leave their communities a little bit better than they found them.”

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