“I have an interest in the way schools work,” says Maria Griffith, a former teacher and literacy coach who’s been a member of Audubon Elementary‘s Local School Council on and off for four years. With three children enrolled at the school–a first-, third-, and sixth-grader–Griffith “wanted to feel like I was doing my part.”
This year, she played a key role as chair of the principal selection committee that recently hired Ken Fitzner to replace John Price. (Fitzner officially reported for duty April 1, no fooling.) “The outgoing principal asked if I was interested,” she says. “Was I chomping at the bit? I had a strong interest in the process going well.”
RVJ chatted with Griffith about becoming an instant HR department and the challenges of running a successful neighborhood school. “It’s a partnership between parents, teachers and administrators. You take one of those legs away, you’ve got a wobbly stool. We’re solid.”
What were your top priorities in choosing a new principal?
“A big piece of our principal selection process was that we didn’t want to just maintain the status quo,” says Griffith. “We can always get better. Our faculty is so enthused and so successful. This is not a rest-on-our-laurels place.” To assess candidates as objectively as possible, as opposed to relying on gut feelings, the selection committee created a rubric that listed desired qualities and then scored and ranked each contender based on that list. “We all read every resume,” she says. “We were looking for people, first of all, that they’re a good fit, that they understand a high-performing neighborhood school. We were definitely interested in people who valued arts integration, could support a talented faculty and had experience with inclusion.” Ten candidates were called in for a first round of interviews, which was pared down to five for a second round. The final two contenders were brought back for a candidate forum in late February. Fitzner, a former assistant principal at Oriole Park Elementary School (adjacent to Edison Park), carried the day with a unanimous vote of confidence from the LSC. “He had been a real partner with the principal [at Oriole Park],” Griffith says. “He’s coming in very experienced at a school that felt very much like ours.”
LSCs are often viewed as mysterious groups. What’s the culture like within Audubon’s?
“Audubon’s LSC is very civilized,” says Griffith. “There’s always a healthy dialogue–people feel free to disagree.” Engagement with the wider community is not only welcome but encouraged. In fact, Audubon is the rare school to not only post a complete list of LSC members on its website, but also contact information for each representative. “We’re not a secret club. People come to LSC meetings.” A typical LSC gathering routinely draws five to 10 parents or neighbors and “they’re very much involved in the conversation.” Hot-button agenda items like CPS’ proposed longer school day are communicated via email and social media and tend to attract larger crowds. “Several years ago, there was talk of getting a cell phone tower. That got a lot of attendance.”
Speaking of the longer school day, how is that being received at Audubon?
“There have been a lot of questions about what that looks like, especially for younger students.” At the pre-K and kindergarten levels, concerns have been expressed regarding what’s developmentally appropriate for Audubon’s youngest kids. “People will really welcome recess,” Griffith adds. “Kids need brain breaks and recharging time.” Given the school’s emphasis on arts integration and strong partnerships with organizations such as Redmoon Theater, “having more arts in the school” would be one benefit of an extended school day.
As the parent of a sixth-grader, you probably already have high school on the brain. How has the announcement of Lake View as a STEM school been viewed?
“Lake View came up at our last LSC meeting. Everybody thinks STEM is really promising,” says Griffith, but adds that while some parents may dive in and test the waters, most are taking a “hmm…that’s very interesting” wait-and-see approach. Of particular interest: how the partnership with Microsoft will play out.
“There’s a lot of anxiety around finding a good fit for high school,” Griffith admits. “The system creates a lot of angst, anxiety and pressure for students that we wish they didn’t have.” She credits Audubon for centering the discussion on “are you happy with where you’re going”–finding the school best suited to each individual student’s needs and capabilities.
How would you like for Audubon to be perceived?
“I want it to be seen as a warm and nurturing environment for kids.” Griffith takes particular pride in Audubon’s strong inclusion model and differentiated instruction for students with autism and other disabilities. “That’s a big part of our culture, keeping our school as inclusive and respectful as possible.” She points to Audubon’s “Unique Week” as an example of the way the school celebrates individuality.
In hosting activities like outdoor movie nights, Audubon also serves as a hub of community activities. “The school is part of a larger community, and what that does for people is tangible and intangible,” says Griffith, whether increasing property values or encouraging families to put down roots. “Even if [people] don’t have kids in the school, they have a stake in the school.”