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3 Finalists for Nettelhorst Principal Remain After Unexpected Withdrawal

By Ariel Cheung | February 26, 2016 8:36am
 The three finalists for the principal role at The Nettelhorst School are [from l.] Heather Connolly, Yasmeen Muhammad-Leonard and Jennifer Dixon.
The three finalists for the principal role at The Nettelhorst School are [from l.] Heather Connolly, Yasmeen Muhammad-Leonard and Jennifer Dixon.
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Provided/Nettelhorst LSC

EAST LAKEVIEW — A surprise last-minute drop-out left three candidates vying to be the next principal at The Nettelhorst School.

On Wednesday, finalist Gary Norcross, assistant principal at Blaine Elementary School, withdrew his application to replace Cindy Wulbert, who left Nettelhorst in July to work for New Leaders, a national nonprofit that trains and mentors school leaders.

"After significant consideration, Gary Norcross has decided to withdraw his candidacy," the Nettlehorst Local School Council said in a statement. "He feels that Blaine is the right place for him to remain right now."

Norcross has been at Blaine since 2013, when he left Disney Magnet School.

The switch came one day after Blaine Principal Troy LaRaviere said this could be his last year at Blaine Elementary on the Southport Corridor. LaRaviere is the nominee for president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association and if elected, might have to leave his job as Blaine principal.

 Three new murals from Jeremiah Ketner, JC Rivera and Chema Skandal will greet students this fall.
Three new murals from Jeremiah Ketner, JC Rivera and Chema Skandal will greet students this fall.
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Since Wulbert's departure from Nettelhorst, Yasmeen Muhammad-Leonard has been the interim principal after serving as the school's resident principal in 2015.

Muhammad-Leonard is one of the three finalists for the permanent gig, along with Heather Connolly and Jennifer Dixon. All three will speak at a community forum Monday, where parents and students can learn about each candidate and share opinions with the Local School Council after the meeting.

Heather Connolly

Connolly is the assistant principal of Barry Elementary School in Hermosa. Before starting there in July, she was the executive director for administrative services for the school district in Waterloo, Iowa.

As principal of Ravenswood Elementary School, she turned the school from the lowest CPS academic ranking to the second-highest in four years.

"My leadership style is extremely collaborative and one where stakeholder voices are valued," Connolly said. "By bringing in other people to help share in [the] decision-making process, it creates more ownership [and] they are much more invested in the decision."

Having a strong staff and focusing on what's best for students are among Connolly's top priorities, she said. Connolly has a master's degree in administration and supervision from Loyola University, a master's in curriculum instruction and a bachelor's degree in elementary education.

Jennifer Dixon

Dixon comes from Palmer Elementary School in Albany Park, where she's been assistant principal since 2013. During that time, she helped build family engagement and trust among the teaching staff while also setting up a computer science program, she said.

The Harvard University graduate was also a resident principal at Melody Elementary School in West Garfield Park. She has also been a literacy coach and third-grade teacher at other Chicago schools.

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"I have found my calling in school leadership and could not find a life purpose more meaningful than ensuring every child has access to a high-quality education fulfilled within the most supportive, creative and child-centered environment possible," Dixon said.

Dixon has master's degree in education from Harvard and DePaul University and a bachelor's degree from Western Illinois University. She also trained teachers through Teach for America and Chicago Teaching Fellows.

Yasmeen Muhammad-Leonard

As the interim and resident principal at Nettelhorst, Muhammad-Leonard touted her students' double-digit gains in winter reading and math testing and her strategic work juggling the district's mid-year budget cuts without losing instructional programming or staff.

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She also created the Stallion Ambassador student group and restructured the in-school suspension and supervised recess programs.

"I offer to the school community a diverse instructional background and my pledge to promote the shared values and beliefs of the Nettelhorst school community and its whole-child development approach," she said.

Before her time at Nettelhorst, Muhammad-Leonard was a case manager at Tanner Elementary in Chatham. She has a master's degree in special education and bachelor's in elementary education from Chicago State University.

The process

Since July, the local school council narrowed the field from 12 candidates to four finalists with the help of an advisory committee.

The council invited community members, teachers and parents to be part of the committee, "because they wanted to get neutral advice," said Jim McMann, one of the committee members.

With two children at Nettelhorst, McMann said he was interested to see "how the inner workings worked." Once the finalists were chosen, the committee visited each candidate's school this week.

"I was very impressed how even-keeled and in-control everything was, and it was just a very enlightening experience," McMann said.

Nettelhorst staff will meet the candidates Monday afternoon before the community forum. The forum will be from 6:30-7:45 p.m. in the Nettelhorst auditorium.

The council will vote on a new principal during a March 4 meeting.

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