"The First Year is a Special Thing"
Alumni principal Conrey Callahan reflects on her first year as a principal, celebrating the progress her school has made and looking ahead to what’s next for New Field Elementary.
October 8, 2018
“New Field…is just the greatest little patch of earth. I love this school,” Principal Conrey Callahan (Greater Philadelphia ’08) said of New Field Elementary, where she’s been principal for a year. Though she’s now a passionate school leader, Callahan did not originally think she wanted to work in education. A Spanish and history major at Vanderbilt University, Callahan believes a college class where she tutored an undocumented immigrant was the turning point to her career. “She wrote me a really beautiful letter saying ‘I think you’d be a wonderful educator and you’ve really helped me,’” Conrey said. “And I thought about that and ruminated on that and decided to take a gamble and apply to Teach For America.” Callahan sees applying to Teach For America as what “really started [her] journey.” She joined the Philadelphia corps in 2008 upon graduating college.
Callahan taught in Philadelphia for four years, a “transformative experience” only ending when she realized that with the school district facing unprecedented budget cuts, it was time to find another job. Callahan recalls thinking, “I had experienced successes in my classroom and challenges outside of my classroom walls that I felt like perhaps I could help solve in a different role in a school.” This consideration, and her work founding a chapter of the non-profit, Minds Matter—a non-profit dedicated to mentoring gifted high school students to prepare them for college—led her to participate in Teach For America’s Chicago Leadership Collaborative. This two-year program had Callahan studying at Harvard for a year and then completing a residency program in Chicago. This is when she found New Field Elementary.
“I think we’re a neighborhood school that works (…) The kids that attend my school together are the same kids that go to the park together are the same kids that go to the McDonald’s down the street together.”
New Field Elementary School is a Chicago Public School in Rogers Park with roughly 700 students. Callahan started off her career at New Field as the assistant principal for three years. Callahan “wanted to spend a few years learning the school system, learning from and with other school leaders and principals and really building [her] own leadership practice.” And though she has only been principal for a year, Callahan already has a litany of things she hopes to achieve, the main one being developing the leadership of those around her. “I can’t do this job alone,” she said. She states that the greatest challenge of her job is realizing “what your priorities are as a school and how you can maintain your consistent focus on those things.”
That being said, Callahan understands the uniqueness of her school, saying “I think we have the fortune of really representing a diverse group of people…and I think we’re a neighborhood school that works (…) The kids that attend my school together are the same kids that go to the park together are the same kids that go to the McDonald’s down the street together, and I think it helps grow a community of people.” Students at New Field maintain this diversity of perspectives and experience, speaking over 45 different languages. While her students are young, Callahan knows they can still decide what types of learners they want to be, and she looks forward to helping them become their own best advocates.
“I love that…no day is the same (…) I learn something new every single day,” she said. She also speaks highly about the parents, teachers, and students at her school. “I love New Field because of them, and I love being here because of them. It makes the job— which is a challenging job—inspiring and fun because they’re such a great group.”