What Setting up a Child for Academic Success Really Means
Two years ago my special needs daughter was attending Oscar Mayer Elementary in Chicago, she was in 5th grade and it was her first year at Mayer. Beginning in February of that school year until May of the same year, the Principal, Katie Konieczny, and Assistant Principal Bilquis Thomas, decided the best way to “teach” my daughter to control her behavior was to suspend her not once, twice, or even three times, but in the course of 12 weeks, suspend her from school for a total of nine days. The psychological, emotional, and physical toll their actions had on my daughter and me were unbearable. Julia learned very quickly to hate school, she mistrusted the teachers, adults and authority figures in that building. When her behaviors escalated because of the frustration she felt being in the wrong academic setting, the principal, assistant principal, her aide and usually the uniformed school guard would surround her and pummel her with words, commands and even take actions such as strapping her in an EVAC chair to thwart her outbursts. She weighed 55 pounds at the time and their excuse was that she was a physical threat to them. Four adults, each at least 2 to 3 times her size found it necessary to write her suspensions up as the highest level possible. Julia’s suspension reports were categorized the same as if a student had a weapon, had physically harmed a teacher or student, or caused serious damage to property. The mistreatment and their perpetual use of suspensions set Julia on an academic course that I never thought she would recover from. She hated school, wanted to “suspend” herself and ended up refusing to go day after day. The actions by that school and the adults were an abuse of power and caused a child with intellectual, physical and cognitive issues to feel unwanted. Her self esteem plummeted and the stress of that academic year threatened her physical growth.
CPS placed her at Lozano Elementary and Julia reluctantly began a new school year not knowing a soul. Her behaviors carried over and her self esteem was in turmoil. At the beginning of 6th grade, she wrote this out after a meltdown in one of her classes:
Under the guidance of Principal Maria Campos and Assistant Principal Sonia Lopez, Julia’s behaviors were handled much differently. They understood what this child had been through. They worked diligently to gain her trust, dissuade her from feeling bad about her behaviors by focusing on self control and began to spark her interest in academics. 6th grade for Julia started out rough behaviorally, but with consistent messaging about her abilities to control herself, continual coaching from the school social worker and other staff, Julia slowly began to understand that this was a safe and nurturing school.
This is her second year at Lozano and there were a few incidents at the beginning of the year. With the continued support, reinforcement of positive behavior and incentives, Julia began to mature. We slowly saw her behaviors become less severe and less frequent. She was learning self control and the entire school was on board to support her through this transformation. Julia’s academic abilities were growing and she happily woke up every morning eager to go to school. In January, after Christmas break, Julia’s maturity took a huge leap. She was engaged, social, happy and controlling herself emotionally. Her teachers were coming up to me after school and commenting on how well she was doing, the principal made a point to stop and speak to me for several minutes about the wonderful changes Julia had made, the work she was doing and the pride she displayed. She went from one incident a week to a week free of incidents. That turned into 2 weeks of good behavior and internally Julia had attained a level of self awareness and her confidence was shining.
On Monday, March 10th, I picked Julia up from school as I usually do and when I saw her, she was beaming with a huge smile. Her aide had a look of pride and excitement that told me something good had happened that day. Julia stood with her hands on her walker, looked up at me with her big, shiny, brown eyes and announced that she had been chosen Student of the Month! I was shocked, and she squealed with delight as I picked her up and squeezed her as tight as I could. It was a moment in time that I will cherish forever.
Her teacher, Sylvia Martinez recognized Julia’s tremendous efforts, understood what Julia had to overcome to achieve such a high award and knew that Julia rightfully deserved the recognition that comes with such an honor.
Academic success cannot be measured in test scores; it is measured by motivating a student to the point of ownership. It is conveying to that student that they matter, period.
Julia’s academic career will be forever changed because of the efforts of a school that sees the potential in each student, disregards the past, focuses on their future and teaches internal pride. The Lozano mascot is an eagle and rightfully so. Lozano picked up a broken child, nurtured her mind and spirit, gave her space to grow and taught her how to soar on her own.