One constant in decades of school improvement efforts in Chicago is a recognition that principals play a pivotal role. Good principals are magnets for good teachers, good programs and support from parents and the larger community.
CPS, colleges of education and nonprofit education organizations have conducted a variety of principal preparation programs over the years. Now two reports – one on the early implementation of a 2010 law on principal training and the other on principal turnover – have again sharpened the focus. And on Monday, a committee that is studying the issue of hiring, training and keeping the best principals recommended that the district create a non-profit to handle all of these issues.
To see what these and other policy initiatives aim to produce, Catalyst’s Stephanie Choporis spent a day with Dana Butler, the long-time principal of Ruiz Elementary, a school with impressive statistics on teacher retention and student achievement.
Dana Butler, principal of Ruiz Elementary in Pilsen, thinks of his job as an “incredible balancing act.” From making daily classroom visits to helping students cross the street, Butler wears many hats and sometimes actually changes clothes a couple times a day.
Butler sits at his desk and reaches for a tissue to dab his brow. The school day hasn’t officially started, and he is already sweating.
While students and several teachers are still filing in 10 minutes before the bell rings, Butler has been here since 6 a.m. And his day started even earlier: A little after 4 a.m., he was checking text messages, emails and Twitter updates from his apartment in Beverly. At 5:18 a.m., a teacher texted him to see if the 8th-graders could still go on a field trip, despite losing one chaperone. David “Mac” MacWilliams, a former Ruiz teacher who now volunteers at the school, cut his hand on a power saw and was being kept at a hospital overnight for observations.
“We’re huge on supervision,” says Butler, noting that the 8th-graders had enough chaperones even without MacWilliams.
On this particular Friday -- Nov. 20, 2015 -- three of the school’s 50 teachers and two of its roughly 16 educational support personnel (ESP) are absent. He considers this a “soft” number but still was able to get only two replacement teachers and one educational support person, despite keeping a “bank” of substitutes.
When he comes up short, he looks for Ruiz teachers whose schedules can accommodate another class, and if necessary, he steps in to lead the class himself.
“You’d be hard-pressed to find a principal who’s never done it,” he says.
Minutes later, office clerk Patricia “Patty” Urbano pops in to tell Butler that a concerned parent would like to speak with him. He agrees to take the call.
His desk phone rings. “Good morning, Mr. Butler. May I help you?” the 53-year-old principal says in a voice slightly deeper and more serious than his typically jolly tone. “Well, thank you. Thank you. We love our school, and we try to do our absolute best.” His voice is now back to normal. The parent on the line is considering placing her son at Ruiz.
Meanwhile, Michael Micek, a dean and 7th-grade teacher, hovers in the doorway and then comes in to chat about a former student who is transitioning back into the school after a long absence. As Micek leaves, Butler asks whether he has heard about MacWilliams’ hospitalization. The injury is the topic of conversation for much of the morning.
With a blue tooth device around his neck for answering cell phone calls, Butler walks to a second-floor classroom to check on handouts to be discussed at two professional development meetings for middle-grades teachers. The first meeting is scheduled to start in 20 minutes. Normally, there is only one such meeting in any given day. But due to report card pick-up day earlier in the week, Butler says they have to double up.
Heading for Room 202, he bumps into Martin Robles, an attendance clerk, who is greeting students as they enter the building.
“I got Mac’s spot,” Butler tells Robles, referring to the after-school cooking class for 4th-graders that MacWilliams helps supervise -- Butler will be filling in for MacWilliams.
After he learns that copies of the handouts are ready, Butler walks through the hallways and greets students.
“Hi, Mr. Butler,” exclaims a little girl sitting with a group outside of a classroom. “I like your outfit.” She’s referring to Butler’s gray button-down shirt, black suede jacket, bow tie with white polka dots and black suede shoes topped with silver ornamentation.
“Thank you,” he responds. “I dressed myself.”
Butler continues to greet students, giving some high-fives and others hugs. He says he’s not a morning person or a coffee-drinker but will play SongPop, a music trivia game, on his Samsung Galaxy 5 cell phone in the morning to get energized and stay “sane.”
“Give your mom a goodbye hug and you run on up. ...Abrazo,” he tells another girl. Abrazo is the Spanish word for “hug.”
Butler, who is African American, picked up the Spanish language and culture while studying in Mexico during his time at Central State University. Former Local School Council Chair Sergio Ramirez -- who sent four of his seven children to Ruiz -- says Butler’s dedication to Latino students is “unbelievable,” especially since “there’s so much division in … communities.”
According to CPS data, 96 percent of Ruiz’s students are Latino and 92 percent are considered low-income. Nearly 30 percent are learning to speak English-- almost double the district average.
The first professional development meeting begins, as several teachers discuss how they are incorporating collaborative discussions and writing into their subject areas. Ana Salinas, who teaches math, says she has started giving her students math-related writing prompts, and Heidi Grozdic reports that her students are now able to sit and write for longer periods of time.
“That’s huge,” says Butler. Meetings like these take place once a week, and “help guide instruction and make sure that the grade levels are basically doing the same thing,” he says.
With his laptop and cell phone by his side, Butler checks both frequently. By the end of the roughly 45-minute meeting, he has received 10 text messages and five emails -- none of them personal.
As the second meeting for middle-grades teachers gets under way, Butler notes the presence of Denise Escota, one of three special education teachers at Ruiz who are bilingual. He calls this a “rarity”-- which state data confirm -- and says he is “blessed” to have them.
About 11 percent of Ruiz’s 781 students are in special education, and the faculty includes seven special education teachers.
As the meeting continues, science teacher Adriana Casas shares information about a student who has performed poorly on tests and might need special education services. She suggests that the student may simply have test anxiety instead.
Casas is one of three teachers who were students at Ruiz and had Butler as a teacher. Student teachers also return as full-fledged teachers, and staff members and former students enroll their children. Illinois State Board of Education data show Ruiz had a teacher retention rate of roughly 97 percent for 2015, while the district average was 81 percent.
“It’s a family,” Butler says. “I’ve always felt like I was part of a community and part of a team and part of a system … that really cared about students.”
Ruiz received a coveted Level-1 ranking this year under the district’s school rating system, which Butler says is a first for the school since he’s been there.
Butler has just a few minutes before heading outside to help supervise a class of fourth-graders in the school’s community garden. In 2011, Ruiz students and faculty were honored at the White House for achieving gold status in First Lady Michelle Obama’s HealthierUS School Challenge. Less than a year later, Ruiz became one of six CPS schools to receive a learning garden from The Kitchen Community, a nonprofit that runs the garden initiative across the country. Today, the students will plant garlic cloves and harvest arugula and dill.
Just outside his office, the 6-foot-2 principal sheds his suit jacket and bow tie and slips on a gray Ruiz T-shirt and brown coat. “When I was in college … there was this contest to see how quickly you could get dressed out of a suit,” he says. “I was able to do it in 50 seconds.”
Out in the cold, windy garden area, Butler throws hoods over children’s heads as they listen to Sam Koentopp of The Kitchen Community. As students begin pulling weeds, Butler adopts a more serious persona, keeping everyone in line.
“Hey Vero, how ya doin’?” Butler is back in his office ordering lunch for himself and a few faculty members from Miceli’s Deli & Food Mart, a sandwich shop about a block away. Although Butler says he typically doesn’t take time for lunch, he sometimes makes exceptions.
“Are the golden girls over there?” He’s referring to a group of elderly patrons who frequent the deli and fill him in on happenings in the neighborhood while he awaits his order. Butler says it’s important for him to visit from time to time, simply because it’s part of the community.
“Everything that you are doing that impacts children is important,” he says. “The guy who lives across the street, who doesn’t have any children … is important.”
Ten minutes later, he grabs his walkie-talkie and heads for a nearby alley. He says he uses this less-traveled route to the sandwich shop so he can check for graffiti.
At Miceli’s, he’s greeted by workers and points out the table his “golden girls” usually claim. He has frequented the deli since his days as a teacher but in recent years has rarely found the time. This year, though, he’s already dropped by four times.
“I’m better, right, Vero?” he asks cashier Veronica Malinowski. “Yeah,” she exclaims. “Last year, I didn’t see him at all.”
Back in his office, Butler pops open a bottle of cranberry juice and bites into his chicken salad sandwich. He is surrounded by memorabilia, including family photos from his childhood and old class pictures from when he was a teacher. A shelf of blue binders contain work by former students.
In one photo, Butler is posing with a former student on her wedding day. He was her partner for the father-daughter dance.
As Butler eats his lunch, a new recess supervisor and an office clerk drop in. He then gets on the phone to ask an office clerk to encourage a parent to pick up her three children’s report cards by 5:30 p.m. He is shooting for a 100-percent pick-up rate, and she’s the only parent left to go. When he hangs up, he places a partially-filled water bottle on top of his head and puts his hands together as if praying. He says he sometimes does this to achieve balance during a hectic day.
Butler once had two assistant principals, but one retired a couple of years ago, and he and the other assistant principal, Marla Elitzer, took on extra work.
“She’s just the greatest thing since sliced bread,” Butler says of Elitzer, whom he has worked with for about 25 years. And as much as Butler would like to have a second assistant principal, he says it is more important to put available funding into opportunities for students.
This year, Ruiz’s enrollment dropped by 58 students, spelling a loss of nearly $463,500 in funding, one of the hardest hit schools in Pilsen. But with one teacher retiring, Butler had to lay off only one educational support person. Recently, he petitioned to reopen that slot and learned on Christmas Eve that the CPS administration had granted the request.
Enrollment at Ruiz has dropped nearly every year since 2005, which Butler attributes to fewer students enrolling in district-run schools and neighborhood gentrification. He notes that fewer families are moving into the neighborhood. And research has shown that Pilsen is no longer a top destination for immigrant families, as they are choosing instead to reside in the suburbs.
But Butler doesn’t dwell on what he doesn’t have. He has instead found ways to be resourceful, such as encouraging staff to become licensed so they can step into administrative roles. He says he has at least 10 staff members who are eligible to apply for such positions.
Similarly, to stretch his dollars further, he has hired college students to help with such activities as tutoring, chaperoning on field trips and answering the phones. He now has 12 such part-time aides, who together cost less than four teacher aides would.
Butler takes about 20 minutes to visit classrooms during the last hour of the school day. When he stops by the fourth-grade class that worked in the garden, he’s presented with a stack of thank you letters to be delivered to Koentopp. He also makes sure to stop by Room 316, where he spent much of his time while teaching.
Butler switches into gym shoes, grabs a hand-held stop sign and heads out to the corner of Leavitt and 24th streets for crossing guard duty. He smiles, greets people he recognizes and jokes with recent graduates.
He says the school’s previous crossing guard was recently moved, so he sometimes takes on the responsibility. “Every physical body that could be out there monitoring the dismissal of the kids are out there,” he says.
Inside the school cafeteria, Butler dons an apron that reads “The Grillfather” for the 4th-grade after-school cooking class. Chef instructor Alekka Sweeney of Common Threads informs the excited students that Butler will be supervising in MacWilliams’ place.
Common Threads is a nonprofit that partners with schools to teach children about nutrition and cooking. Each week for 10 weeks, students cook dishes from a different country. This week it’s Senegal, with mashed sweet potatoes, plantain chips and Egusi soup. Butler’s group is responsible for the soup.
As he watches his group mince peppers and helps them stir the soup, he admits that much of what he has learned about cooking has come from this program.
“You have to work real hard to be a bachelor this long,” he jokes about his culinary skills.
Butler walks back to the main office to see whether those final three report cards will be picked up. He greets a mother holding a piece of paper, laughs loudly and gives her a hug.
“You know what that hug was?” he asks the woman. “That was a 100-percent hug ‘cause now I got 100-percent report card pick-up. Bam!”
This means that all students' report cards had been picked up within two days of parent conferences. Butler thinks that only four schools achieved 100 percent last spring.
Butler grabs his dry cleaning out of a closet, where he keeps a suit, extra ties and waterproof boots, and heads out to his black, “beat-down” 2004 Chevy Monte Carlo. His official work day is finally over, and he leaves behind only the custodians. For the rest of the evening, he plans to “detox,” and maybe he will cook dinner.
But there’s a good chance he will still do some school-related tasks, such as return phone calls.
“This job, for me, never stops,” he says. “It just keeps going.”