How One Principal Is Building Student and Teacher Confidence
Andrea Black is going into her seventh year at Schmid Elementary. Learn how this TFA alum is empowering both her students and teachers to realize their full potential.
September 3, 2019
On a quiet August morning, Andrea Black (Atlanta, '05) is getting ready for the new school year. As the principal of Schmid Elementary in Cottage Grove Heights, she is interviewing candidates for teaching roles, helping her clerk get the main office set up, and answering questions from parents. She’s calling Chicago State University, to make sure their mascot will greet students on the first day of school. “As a leader in the building you are not just a school leader, you’re a community leader,” Andrea says. “And you have to see yourself as that.”
A Chicago native, Andrea has been at Schmid for seven years. She originally taught in the Atlanta corps, and wasn’t sure what direction her path would take as an educator. But in her third year of teaching, Andrea started to become frustrated by the limits to her impact. “I was giving 110 percent in my classroom, but ultimately there was nothing I could do about underperforming teachers as a teacher,” Andrea says. “I knew my next mission was to develop their leadership.” Soon after, she was invited to apply to Teach For America Chicago-Northwest Indiana’s school leadership partnership with Harvard’s Graduate School of Education. “That experience was amazing,” she says. “Being a girl from the notorious, infamous Englewood, and to go to Harvard, that’s something that my ancestors would never have dreamed of.”
“As a leader in the building you are not just a school leader, you’re a community leader.”
After the program she returned to Chicago, where she became assistant principal at Schmid. In 2014, she was officially made principal, after being named interim principal by LaTanya McDade, who currently serves as Chicago Public Schools’ chief education officer. “I have such a commitment to CPS, to a system that serves Chicago students. Chicago has and continues to need outstanding teachers and leaders for our babies, and I love being here,” Andrea says.
As the first day of school approaches, Andrea is focused on student confidence. “Too often we focus on deficits for children,” she says. “But we want them to have that growth mindset, and to do that you need to focus on their strengths.” Around the school you’ll see posters with the simple refrain ‘Schmid Scholars can…,’ a belief that carries over to the school’s focus on college. Andrea makes sure this is part of the conversation in classrooms, and hosts a College Week every year.
Two years ago, a video from this week showing students singing the Auburn University fight song went viral amongst the university’s alumni community. As a result, they flew the whole class out to Auburn for a campus tour, and now they run a camp for Schmid students every summer. “For me, I didn’t hear about college in elementary school. It wasn’t a part of the conversation,” Andrea says. “I want to make sure my scholars know about college and universities. I want to build an awareness of what they can do.”
This focus on potential carries over to how she develops her teachers. “I don’t want to operate in a silo—my intention is always to work as a collaborative and build teacher capacity as leaders,” Andrea says. This has led to teachers taking real initiative—applying for grants and starting after school programs. “I want them to know leadership is not in titles,” she says.
As a small neighborhood school on the South Side, Schmid faces its fair share of challenges. Except for this past year, the budget has decreased every year Andrea has been at the school. “Trying to figure out how to support a school community, I feel like we’re batting with one hand behind our back,” she says. But every day her students walk through the front doors, she’s filled with hope. “They show you the simplicity of happiness in learning,” she says. “They want to be here, and we need to fight to give them what they deserve every single day.”