When I walked into Shoesmith Elementary back in April, Principal Sabrina Gates welcomed me with a bright smile, a handshake and the insistence I call her Sabrina right away. Just as we sat down, a young boy walked in and picked up an “SEL kit,” a big cloth basket full of sensory-friendly materials to help angry or stressed-out kids calm down. The kit included kinetic sand, a tennis ball to roll around, fidget spinners, a CD player with earphones to play nature music and more.
While this boy took his kit back to class, a couple of other students came later, grabbed kits and joined us at the table, calming themselves down while Gates and I continued to talk. Once the young children were ready, in classic “warm demander” fashion, Gates took a few minutes to debrief about what had happened and how they would readjust and refocus on learning once they returned to class.
SEL stands for “social-emotional learning,” and Shoesmith has picked up on the district’s push to increase thoughtful use of social-emotional learning practices, like giving kids time to come down from strong emotions before talking with them about behavior and making plans to correct it. It’s the latest evolution of Gates’ 13-year journey to improve culture, climate and learning at Shoesmith, a small K-6 school in the Hyde Park/Kenwood community.
Like Bennett Elementary’s Teresa Huggins, Gates had a long career as a teacher leader before taking on a school principalship. During Arne Duncan’s time as district CEO, Gates was among the 100-plus reading teachers invited to join the first cadre of district reading specialists trained by University of Illinois Chicago’s Tim Shanahan, a national figure in reading instruction. Gates worked at Manierre Elementary, serving children and families from the former Cabrini-Green housing project and the Marshall Field Gardens Apartments, a privately-owned affordable housing complex.
Later, Gates became a network-level reading coach. To deepen her knowledge of literacy coaching, she trained with the University of Chicago’s Center for School Improvement. Eventually, she joined Shoesmith as an assistant principal. This year, she wrapped up her second principal contract, was voted a third by her Local School Council, and just this week was named a 2019 Chicago Principal Fellow. Today, Shoesmith has reached the top of the district’s accountability rankings and students are showing strong growth and grade-level attainment on NWEA tests. “Stability has something to do with it, stable staff,” she observed. “That wasn’t the case when I took over as principal.”
As an instructional leader, she has mastered the balance between developing the team you have and letting go of people who aren’t on board with a mission to excel. “You can’t fire your way to school improvement,” Gates noted, “but you do have to have difficult conversation [with teachers] and have the resolve to go through the process” when a teacher is not a good fit. You also have to know when a teacher is not a good fit for your school and when they aren’t cut out for the profession, she added.
Gates also knows when to lead, when to coach and when to pick up great ideas from her team. A previous assistant principal helped her more deeply understand the importance of social-emotional strategies in schools and the kits are just one manifestation of how she’s still applying that knowledge today.
While Gates’ background as an instructional coach keeps her focus squarely on teaching and learning, she’s no slouch when it comes to creating partnerships to bring Shoesmith resources. In addition to band and Spanish, Shoesmith partners with Hyde Park Arts, Hubbard Street Dance Theater, and other organizations to strengthen programming beyond core academic subjects.
As a result, the tiny school’s enrollment has grown and is bringing in students from beyond its neighborhood boundaries. Gates estimates only about 40 percent of the schools 360 or so students live in the neighborhood zone–the rest come from elsewhere in Hyde Park/Kenwood or from further away. But the tiny school is making big waves and getting notices. As Gates said, “Hard work is paying off.”