As Students Play Catch-Up, These School Leaders Are Rising to the Challenge

In the years since the pandemic forced schools to close and educators to shift to remote learning, fears about how — or whether — students would be able to keep pace with pre-pandemic academic benchmarks have persisted.

These fears were confirmed in June, when the results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) federal exam were released, which tests students in fourth, eighth, and 12th grade. Even for those of us anticipating pandemic-adjusted results, the data was startling, revealing, among other things, that 13-year-olds’ reading and math scores hadn’t been as low since 2004 and 1990, respectively.

When we consider the fact that children had already been struggling prior to the pandemic, these numbers serve as yet another important reminder that our education system is in dire need of competent school leaders — especially those who serve students of color.

The recent negative impact on student success as shown in the NAEP results has undoubtedly confirmed the concerns of educators around the country. And while the trend is disturbing, at Accelerate Institute, it’s only driven school leaders to work even harder to improve the academic, emotional, and social outcomes of our students.

With the 2023-24 academic year getting underway, we recognize that supporting competent, compassionate leaders at the schools that need them the most is more urgent than ever.

Leading an under-resourced school is no easy feat, especially as the pandemic’s effects linger within U.S. public schools. From decreases in student attendance to staff burnout, leaders have encountered more than their share of challenges, and we want to acknowledge their work.

Below, we’re highlighting the efforts of three Growth Accelerator school leaders who have navigated these unprecedented times — while supporting their students on their roads to success along the way.

Dr. Maria Freeman, Director, Chicago International Charter School Longwood High School

From Culture and Climate Specialist and Athletic Director to Academy Director, Instructional Coach, and Assistant Principal, Dr. Maria Freeman has been no stranger to leadership roles throughout her 25-year career in education.

In addition to a bachelor’s degree in mathematics from Alabama A&M University, Maria holds a master’s in education with a middle school endorsement of mathematics and social science from National Louis University and a master’s in administration and leadership from Saint Xavier University. She also holds a doctorate in organization, leadership, and stewardship from the University of St. Francis.

Now serving as the Director at Chicago International Charter School (CICS) Longwood High School, Maria, who specializes in restorative justice, mentorship, and coaching, has transformed her school from one that is low-performing with high suspension rates to one that regularly meets state and local standards.

How does she do it? Through a rigorous emphasis on data.

In addition to keeping her eyes on students’ shifting needs when it came to instruction, over the past year, Maria, her teachers, and their coaches assessed student data on a weekly basis, which allowed them to create personalized action plans based on each student’s unique needs.

But the role Maria plays in her students’ success goes beyond her focus on the numbers: Over the past year, she sought to promote a sense of belonging among her students. To do that, she increased schoolwide celebrations and college and career events and opportunities, which she says contributed to her school’s nearly 90% attendance rate.

Prior to her role at CICS Longwood, Maria served as a leader at Roberto Clemente High School where, in addition to successfully implementing an annual schoolwide Day of PEACE, she raised the School Quality Rating Policy rating to Level 2 from Level 1 in just one year.

Yalil Nieves, Principal, Mary Gage Peterson Elementary School

A first-generation immigrant, Yalil Nieves was born in Panama. At age 12, she moved to Chicago, where she enrolled in a sixth grade bilingual education class at Logandale Middle School in Logan Square.

Before long, Yalil began excelling in her courses—a trend that continued throughout her academic career: She went on to earn her bachelor’s degree in education and Spanish from Northeastern Illinois University, followed by a master’s in history from Loyola University and another in literacy education from Northeastern Illinois University. Today, she attributes her academic successes to her mother.

Throughout her 12-year career in education, Yalil has held a range of roles, including special education classroom assistant, ESL adult educator, and history teacher.

Now leading Mary Gage Peterson Elementary School, she credits her commitment to collaboration — whether with teachers, parents, or students — to her own experiences as a CPS student.

Having served as Peterson Elementary’s Principal since 2019, Yalil’s goal has been to ensure that each community member’s needs are met while guaranteeing that the school provides all learners with a welcoming and safe learning environment.

Yalil is the proud mother of two children, Norberto, 21, and Layla, 12, and in her free time, she enjoys being with her family and gardening.

JW KueblerJW Kuebler, Director, Chicago International Charter School Irving Park 

Having served at Chicago International Charter School (CICS) Irving Park first as an Assistant Director and Dean of Students and now as its School Director, JW Kuebler has been with the organization for eight years.

JW, who is preschool soccer coach, marathon runner, sketch comedy writer and performer, holds a Master of Educational Administration from Concordia University and a master’s degree in elementary education from Roosevelt University.

This past year spelled difficulty for CICS Irving Park: A series of personal challenges, medical concerns, and career transitions resulted in the loss of 11 team members.

But the year’s staffing setbacks were offset by a far more positive phenomenon: student success. JW saw notable increases when it came to meeting national English language arts and math standards — by 12% and nearly 3%, respectively.

What’s more, surveys showed remarkable satisfaction among JW’s staff, with 100% agreeing or strongly agreeing that the collaborative efforts between JW, his teachers, and staff enabled the school to run effectively. Meanwhile, 93% percent agreed or strongly agreed that the school’s priorities were clearly articulated ahead of the year.

Using the CICS “coaching from within” model, JW and his leadership team employed coaching and problem-solving strategies at the grade level while relying on data to identify curricula areas that proved to be difficult for students, emphasizing a personalized approach that they plan on implementing this year.

Finally, JW and his staff partnered with The New Teacher Project, which aims to provide Black and brown students with access to quality teachers and rigorous instructional practices.

Ultimately, between his own educational and personal background, it’s no surprise that both the students and staff at CICS Irving Park have flourished under JW’s leadership.

Looking ahead

The NAEP results are especially instructive as our leaders move into the 2023-24 school year.

Equally significant are the stories, successes, and goals of leaders like Maria, Yalil, and JW.

We can’t thank Maria, Yalil, and JW enough for their commitment to improving student outcomes, supporting educators, and continuing to build community — during these unprecedented times and beyond.