Cather Elementary Dreams Big for Health and Academics

“If you have a healthy mind, you can learn,” says Cather Elementary Principal Wanda Carey. And a healthy mind usually comes with a healthy body. So, at Cather, Principal Carey has been working hard on both health and academics in her eight years of leading the school.

You could argue that Cather’s work on building a school for healthy bodies is more eye-catching. In 2015, Cather, located in East Garfield Park, received a $1.5 million schoolyard transformation thanks to Space to Grow, a public-private partnership working to convert Chicago schoolyards into centers of community life, outdoor learning and engagement with nature. Cather’s new green space includes a multipurpose turf field (pictured above), an outdoor classroom, a sports court for tennis, volleyball and basketball, edible gardens and a rain garden with native plants that better manages stormwater runoff.

Inside the school, each classroom spends 10 minutes a day on in-class movement. At lunchtime, students have healthy food choices and experiment with eating new-to-them fruits and vegetables. Students also help with the vegetable garden and get to sample the results. Carey says that over time she has seen a gradual change in her school community’s eating habits. “Now I see less and less of the chips,” she observes. “We’re finally getting to the point where parents are bringing healthy snacks” for birthdays and other special events.

Meanwhile, Cather’s academic transformation has also been impressive and sustained. Much of the heavy lifting was done by Carey’s predecessor, Mattie King, who came to Cather back in 2003. “When Ms. King first came, it was a turnaround school,” she says. “I loved her leadership.” Carey served as an assistant principal with King before she retired.

Since King’s departure, Carey has maintained the school’s focus on teaching to each child. “To get growth, you have to teach to the child,” she says. “You have to create a learning path for each child so they can excel.”

This morning, Carey has been visiting math classes in second, third and fourth grade and giving a quick quiz to make sure they are where they need to be. To boost math achievement, Carey herself regularly teaches a pull-out group of second-graders. Her formula is simple, but gets results: “Teach them what they don’t know, review it, make sure they know it, and move on. That’s what Mrs. King did, and it’s how we maintain our Level One status,” Carey says.

Carey has loved teaching since girlhood. A 30-year veteran in Chicago Public Schools, she got her start teaching fourth-graders and working as a reading specialist. Later, she worked downtown in the Office of Accountability before moving into school leadership. “My favorite thing is the students–when you see the light bulb go off. It’s so worth it,” she says. “That’s what makes me get up in the morning, even if I’m tired.”

Photo courtesy Chicago Lives Matter.

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Maureen Kelleher

Chicago Unheard blog manager Maureen Kelleher also serves as a senior writer and editor at brightbeam, a nonprofit network of education activists demanding a better education and brighter future for every child. Before joining the brightbeam team, she spent a decade as a reporter, blogger and policy analyst. Her work has been published across the education world, from Education Week to the Center for American Progress. A former high school English teacher, she is also the proud mom of a middle-schooler. Find her on Twitter at @KelleherMaureen.

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