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'She Makes it Happen': Principal Helping Once-Failing School Thrive

 Kimberly Henderson took over at Oglesby Elementary in March.
Oglesby's New Principal Changes School's Culture Climate
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AUBURN GRESHAM — Oglesby Elementary's new principal has some big goals.

They include building a tight-knit community, improving test scores and erasing the stigma given to some South Side students.

And while her ambitions are lofty, Kimberly Henderson said that she already has seen drastic improvements in the school’s culture and climate.

Oglesby Elementary Principal Kimberly Henderson visits a classroom. [DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson]

“Kids were accustomed to fighting all the time, and so I had to put some things into place,” she said. “I started having weekly meetings with my sixth- through eighth-graders.”

Since she implemented that change, there have been fewer fights, and the students are calmer, she said.

Oglesby Elementary School is at 7646 S. Green St. [DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson]

Henderson, 46,  has been an educator for 22 years, 18 with CPS and four years in a Catholic school. She spent three years managing the AVID elementary program, a college-readiness system.

She grew up in Auburn Gresham and went to high school at Kenwood Academy. She said she got a full scholarship to attend Howard University, where after a year she settled on teaching. Henderson received her master's degree and certification from Concordia University. She holds a second master's degree from National Louis University.

Henderson left Mollison Elementary in Bronzeville earlier this year when the school’s local school council decided not to renew her contract as principal. She had come on board during a difficult time for the school as it merged with Overton Elementary in 2013.

Henderson said she was shocked she was let go from Mollison because the school's CPS quality rating improved under her leadership.

“I allowed myself some tears the first day I got the news, but I was back to work the first day, and I vowed I was never going to act different with the LSC,” Henderson said.

She joined Oglesby when a CPS administrator reached out to her, the principal said.

“She said ‘Listen, I have some openings for next school year, and we’ll talk about what type of school you’re interested in leading next,” Henderson said.

She participated in what she described as an informal interview and was notified about an opening at Oglesbly.

Henderson cut her time at Mollison short and accepted the new job in March. She said she rejected advice from friends telling her that the school had a bad reputation and she should wait for another offer.

She said she wasn’t afraid of the challenges. She knew that the school had a high turnover rate with principals and that test scores were extremely low.

“I took it because I grew up on 79th and Loomis,” she said. “I literally grew up five minutes from the school. I knew the community. I felt like it was going to be a challenge, but I kind of feel like this is the work I was made to do.”

A kindergarten class learns sight words. [DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson]

In the short time she has been principal, there have been several positive changes, she said.

She says she has worked hard to bring the staff closer, including organizing a staff meal and a scavenger hunt. She also meets with her teachers often, she said.

The other issue Henderson said she addressed was the low student scores on the Northwest Evaluation Association Measures of Academic Progress exam, which measures academic achievement in grades two through eight. 

“Our scores on the NWEA, when we took them in January, were the lowest in the network,” she said.

Math and reading scores were the worst, she said.

The school has four small reading areas like this one at the bottom of each stair landing. [DNAinfo/Andrea V. Watson]

Since she came in toward the end of last school year, it was too late to change the instructional style, she said. Instead, her focus was getting students to understand what the test scores mean and get them excited about taking the exams. She went to each class from third through eighth grade and explained the data.

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“I showed them what they should’ve scored,” she said. “They had never seen that before. No one had ever broken it down for them.”

Second-grade curriculum teacher Rosie Thornton said the faculty really appreciated that talk. An educator for 18 years, she has taught at Oglesby for the last 3½ years. Like Henderson, she grew up in the community, which has helped her connect with students, Thornton said.

“I’m really happy she’s here because we all have the same vision of making sure all of our students are successful," Thornton said. "She's a mover and shaker. She tells you what she wants, her expectations, and then she makes it happen."

Oglesby Local School Council member Carlos Nelson, who has seen a half-dozen principals come and go, said Henderson is a great choice for the school.

"Ms. Henderson comes from the community and comes with a level of passion, excitement and commitment," Nelson said. "You can feel it. The LSC can feel it. Families, parents and students can feel it as well."

The school built a data wall where students could see where they were at the beginning of the year and how they’ve progressed. Everyone had a target goal to reach.

Photo provided by Kimberly Henderson

The school held a “NWEA Spirit Week” with a pep rally and different daily themes. On the day of testing, each class brought a breakfast snack or drink to share.

Her aim is to teach students to not be afraid of tests and to show them what they can accomplish if they work hard. She also wants to instill pride in them and "an us-against-them mentality,” Henderson said.

“Nobody believes that we can do it. We’re the school in Englewood," she said of the school that sits between Englewood and Auburn Gresham. "We’ve had the lowest scores in the network. So we’re going to show them what we’re made of."

“It was unbelievable the amount of growth that we did; it was drastic,” Henderson said.

In 2015-16 the school was better than 15 percent of schools nationwide in growth in reading scores on the NWEA MAP exam.

This year, students' growth on reading tests was better than the growth at 92 percent of schools nationally.

In math, the growth in test scores for 2016-2017 was better than 43 percent of schools nationally, a drastic growth from 2015-2016 when student growth was better than 1 percent of schools nationally.

Henderson has established what she calls non-negotiables for classes. For example, teachers must conduct small-group instruction in reading and math, and staff must strive for perfect attendance.

Social and emotional issues are addressed at the beginning of each day in each classroom. Everyone sits in a circle and talks about whatever is on their mind, and the teacher gives them a message at the end.

Henderson said she avoids suspensions and is a supporter of restorative justice practices that emphasize teaching students who misbehaved and offering them a chance to repair the harm caused.  She prefers to resolve the issue at the school instead of sending the student away, she said.

She’s also working hard to get students interested in college at a young age. A group of eighth-graders participated in a college fair recently, and some hallways in the school are full of college and university banners.

Henderson has started a book club for the eighth-graders that she leads. She said she’s on a mission to prepare her students for the next chapter of their lives.

“Every school deserves a quality leader and quality teachers, so even though this school has been through a lot, it isn’t less deserving,” she said.

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