Englewood STEM Mural

Fernwood Elementary: A Hidden Gem in Washington Heights

We have the impression that many schools on the South Side of Chicago are trash, when in actuality, there are some amazing schools in our communities doing amazing things. Fernwood Elementary School in the Washington Heights neighborhood is one of them.

I recently had the opportunity to tour the Level 1+, predominantly Black and low-income school and speak with the principal, Mr. Robert L. Towner. I was completely blown away by what I heard.

The school’s hallways – “living walls” as Mr. Towner calls them –  are lined with powerful images of great leaders like Bobby Seale and Assata Shakur who advanced the movements of activism and social justice for Black people. Educators and liberators like Frederick Douglass, Dr. King, Harriet Tubman and Malcolm X. And innovators like Mae Jemison, Annie Easley and Benjamin Banneker.

Photo by Tanesha Peeples.

The classrooms are outfitted with an abundance of the latest technological tools with the understanding that online and interactive learning are key in today’s academic settings. Along with having computers and smart boards, every student has their own tablet or chromebook. And, Fernwood partners with a company called Smith System that designs classroom furniture catering to organizational grouping and allowing the students to work and engage with one another.

If I could go back and do elementary school all over again, I’d want it to look and feel like Fernwood.

Teamwork Makes Fernwood Work

While Mr. Towner exemplifies leadership, he humbly acknowledges that he didn’t get to this point on his own. The Tuskegee University alumnus accredits his and the success at Fernwood to great educators in his family and mentors who taught him the importance of building relationships, holding people accountable and instilled in him the power of compassion.  

Principal Towner also knows his school would not be successful without an incredible team. He believes in a balance of autonomy and mentorship, allowing teachers to develop curricula they feel will best educate their students while also providing hands-on support when needed – especially through professional development opportunities. Additionally, he leads by example by teaching math and science classes at Fernwood.

Quality Instruction From Quality Teachers Matters in Exceeding Standards

All students have to take tests but the team at Fernwood doesn’t sweat that. They’ve adopted the mindset to succeed where whether it be the NWEA, Benchmark assessments, or whatever future exams emerge through evolving ideas and administrations.

They’ve also cultivated the spirit of competition in their students–not competition against other students, but being competitive with themselves.  They call it, “You against the test.”

According to Mr. Towner, the students take their time while testing to ensure they’re getting the highest scores possible. And in valuing the best results, Fernwood students contribute to and uphold a culture of high expectations and excellence.

And while the staff uses metrics from the various exams to make sure they’re embedding them in the scope and sequence, Mr. Towner’s philosophy is, “If you’re teaching well, progress monitoring, and reteaching where necessary, students will be successful.”

So instead of teaching towards the tests, they’ve focused on delivering quality instruction from quality teachers. In fact, one of their pre-K teachers was recently recognized because her students had some of the highest scores in CPS’s Goals Assessment.

All of the Other Things That Make This School Dope

Along with being an effective leader and building a strong team, Mr. Towner has incorporated several other practices to make Fernwood the ideal learning and growth environment.

He highly believes in social justice, community service and community collaboration. Every Monday morning, the older students participate in roundtable type sessions where they discuss issues in their communities, how to be effective problem solvers and all around, positive and productive citizens.

Students are required to complete three community service projects before graduating and also host several fundraisers throughout the year.

The school hosts a number of family themed activities and events to keep the parents and community engaged. They’ve also collaborated with a number of community based organizations to bring arts, music and a number of other scarce resources to Fernwood.

For example, the artwork in the school hallways was created in partnership with a company called Green Star whose goal is to inspire students and community members through the creation of public art. Team members host workshops with students and staff to develop the drawings and ultimately create the mosaics on the school walls. The plan is to have every wall in Fernwood covered with these mosaics.

And as an added bonus to their learning and exposure to different environments and cultures, students are taken on annual trips around the country–trips that are partially subsidized by the school. They’ve gone to Cleveland to visit historic Underground Railroad stops, Atlanta to visit Dr. King’s tomb and childhood home and even to New York to take in shows on Broadway.

Bottom Line, Check This School Out!

There’s so much more I can say about the exemplary school but I’ve come close to my maximum word count, lol! But, I am ecstatic to know that there are schools in our communities that are educating kids who the country has deemed unteachable because of their zip codes and the color of their skin.

So I just want to thank Mr. Towner and his team for their service to our students and community!

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Tanesha Peeples

South Side community leader Tanesha Peeples is a Chicago Public Schools alumna and proud Englewoodian. She currently serves on the board of the Montessori School of Englewood. Formerly, she served the Deputy Director of Outreach for Education Post, for whom she penned the long-running column Hope and Outrage. As an undergraduate student at Northern Illinois University, Tanesha began to develop a passion for and understand the importance of public service. After obtaining her bachelor’s degree in political science and public administration, she returned to Chicago with a new perspective on community, politics and civic engagement. Tanesha then attended and graduated from DePaul University with a master’s degree in public service management and urban planning and development. Throughout her professional career, Tanesha has used her education, passion and experience to navigate a number of nonprofit, political and independent ventures, advancing her mission to educate and empower marginalized populations. Prior to joining Education Post, she also managed her own consulting firm specializing in community relations. Tanesha’s vision is one where everyone—regardless of ethnicity, socioeconomic status, gender or zip code—can have access to a comfortable quality of life and enjoy the freedoms and liberties promised to all Americans. Find her on Twitter at @PeeplesChoice85.

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