Principal Feature: Elizabeth Dunn, Principal of Catalyst Circle Rock
Elizabeth Dunn is a proud Chicagoan who grew up in the Englewood neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, surrounded by a wealth of friends and family members. As a child, she attended a small Catholic elementary school and was so excited when she tested into Whitney Young for high school. As she progressed in high school, however, she saw a real difference in her educational experience at Whitney Young versus the experiences of her friends and family members who attended traditional public schools. She had choices and opportunities with her coursework, extracurriculars, and future. They did not. This did not feel right to Elizabeth, who believed that everyone, regardless of what school they went to, should have access to such opportunities.
While education was always something that Elizabeth valued, she never intended on being an educator. She attended Howard University in Washington, DC, where she studied political science with plans to become a lawyer and go into politics. However, the more work experience she got under her belt, the more she realized that she wanted to work in education. After college, she joined Teach For America and started teaching right away at The Catalyst Schools. She taught at the middle school level before becoming the Director of Instruction and now Principal of Catalyst Circle Rock. Unafraid of hard work and always looking to grow, she’s now in an educational leadership doctoral program.
Last Spring, the coronavirus pandemic spread across the country and Chicago has been deeply impacted. When Chicago schools first shut down, it was very unexpected. Elizabeth and her team went right into short-term crisis management, making sure the scholars and families had access to any type of educational content for the two weeks that everyone thought the shutdown was going to be. When they realized that schools would be remote for much longer, Elizabeth and her team planned for a longer-term solution. By April, they made sure that all families had access to both devices and hotspots and received regular communications from Elizabeth herself.
On top of the pandemic, last Spring also saw a rise in social justice movements after the killing of George Floyd by a police officer. Elizabeth knew that this was something that she wanted to and needed to address at school. She and her team opened up regular and critical space for conversations for both staff and families to grapple with the injustice that they experienced and felt. They held challenging all-staff meetings to discuss identity at school. They started a Social Justice Committee to create anti-racist practices at their school and to create agents of change in their scholars.
Going into this school year, Elizabeth and her team prepared themselves, their families and scholars fully for a challenging year ahead. Once they knew they’d be fully remote, they created a comprehensive remote learning playbook. They shared it and got feedback from staff and then families. Once it was aligned upon, they prepared scholars for a full learning experience at home. This included putting together one box for every single scholar in the building — all 520 of them. Each scholar got a device, headphones with noise-blocking microphones, whiteboards with markers, curriculum materials (like novels and project materials), pencils, and crayons. For scholars who lacked a learning space, they sent home desks and chairs with students. 100% of scholars are equipped with all that they need – including devices and WiFi.
Now that scholars have all the materials they need, Elizabeth and her team are working to support families in remote learning. Every Monday evening, they run a Parent University with a different topic every week, ranging from how to check Google Classroom and grades to how to build a learning environment to how to support social and emotional learning while at home. Families are finding this to be hugely helpful.
To further support families, Elizabeth credits their strong Culture Team. They make sure that every student gets a call twice each week. They set up conferences for kids who need a little extra love. They set up social spaces for scholars so that they can be kids and engage in non-academic content. For these reason, Circle Rock has seen an attendance rate of 95%.
The school year has only just begun, but the work that Elizabeth and her team at Catalyst Circle Rock are doing is setting the stage for a pivotal year for scholars, families, and the community.