Manning the helm of Austin Polytechnical Academy, 231 N. Pine, was new principal Fabby Williams’ first choice.
Williams, who brings 15 years of experience as an educator and administrator to the job, saw the school’s challenges as opportunities.
The manufacturing-focused high school has struggled to improve test scores, increase enrollment and to overcome its predecessor’s history as a failed schooled. Austin Community Academy High School closed in 2007 and was reconstituted into three small high schools that includes Austin Business and Entrepreneurial High School and VOISE Academy.
But Austin Polytechnical High School was the right fit for Williams. He replaces former principal Bill Gerstein who was promoted to work on community-based school improvement at Chicago Public Schools (CPS).
The school also gained a new assistant principal, Tonya Hammaker. Hammaker replaces Bernina Norton who became principal of a new charter school, Chicago Talent Development High School.
Chicago Public Schools recruited Williams, a Brooklyn native, a year ago to go through its principal selection process. They presented Williams with three possible high schools for principal positions that included Austin Polytech. Williams admired the school’s mission to give students real world job skills.
“Austin was the first one I talked to, and I decided it was a good fit for me,” said Williams, who began his career as an educator in North Carolina’s Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District.
Austin, he said, mirrored the former high school he headed in size, demographics and challenges. It too was a career tracked high school focusing on business and finance.
“I felt that I was very successful in my previous school [and] I thought that coming to Chicago I could bring some of the skills in Charlotte to an urban city such as Chicago,” said Williams, whose father hails from Liberia, West Africa.
He wants to improve the school’s attendance and visibility. The school’s history, he noted, hinders recruitment. The former Austin High School had its issues, but parents fail to realize “that it is a totally different school from what it was a few years back,” he said.
To boost attendance, Williams plans to be the “face” of the school and do year-round recruitment in the Austin Polytech’s feeder schools. In the past, freshmen enrollment hovered between 80 and 90. Williams would like it to top at 100. This school year, 66 freshmen enrolled.
“I want to get into the community, meet the parents, meet the students, meet the community leaders and explain to them the direction we would like to see this school headed,” he said.
That outreach includes more academic support to Austin’s feeder schools, assistant principal Hammaker said. Hammaker is a 10-year CPS veteran. She began teaching at North Lawndale Prep and was recently the dean of instruction at Farragut High school.
She noted incoming freshmen often struggle with math and English.
“Engineering requires a higher level of math, and we want our kids to be prepared,” said Hammaker, a University of Iowa graduate. She was the first in her family to graduate from college. Hammaker got into teaching to show students that attending college is attainable.
“When you don’t have parents that don’t have college experience, you really have to figure that out on your own,” she said. “They don’t know how to help you, so you rely on your teachers, counselors, principals to maneuver you through that whole process.”
Improving achievement level ensures students are prepared and successful, Williams added. The administration plans to conduct assessments to gauge where students are at and provide appropriate academic support.
“In order to move forward you have to have to know where your kids are – you have to have a starting point,” Williams said. “Then we know how to better instruct them.”
The goal, he added, is to increase student achievement by one grade level.
Williams and Hammaker plan to be more visible – not isolated behind a desk in offices. The intent is to develop a rapport with students and create “a safe haven” for students to learn and thrive, Williams said.
“Students tend to work for you and try to be successful not because of a grade, but because they know that you care about them and you want them to succeed,” he explained.
The new administration also wants to focus on teacher development. Teachers will be observed in the classrooms and their input will be sought on the kinds of professional development they need. Williams said he wants “a highly qualified and effective teacher in every classroom” to address all the students’ needs.
“When we say all of our students, we mean the ones who come in at a high level as well as the ones who are lacking certain skills when they come here,” he said.