Shawn Jackson, principal at Spencer Elementary Technology Academy, works to give students the skills they need for success.

By Jenny Kustra Quinn

There are no children playing outside in the Austin neighborhood surrounding Spencer Elementary Technology Academy. Located on the city’s West Side, and with one of the highest homicide rates in Chicago, Austin is simply too dangerous for that. Spencer principal Shawn Jackson (PhD ‘10) has taken it upon himself to provide opportunities within the school walls. And students aren’t the only ones who are benefiting. Jackson has found ways to meet the needs of their parents, which has given his students a better chance to succeed.

Jackson, a graduate of Loyola’s Administration and Supervision program and a former science teacher, took over as principal in 2007, after serving as assistant principal. Spencer serves preschoolers through 8th-graders and had been on Chicago Public Schools academic probation for several years when he took the reins. “We had a rough reputation as far as student behaviors, and we had gotten accustomed to a failing culture,” Jackson says.

But today there’s a different story at Spencer. The culture has changed, and so has school performance. Spencer came off probation last year, and scores on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test have steadily climbed, although they still have a way to go. The turnaround is in spite of tough circumstances: 99 percent of Spencer students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. The students and their families deal with poverty, homelessness, crime, and unemployment. So the school’s motto—“Moving students beyond the immediate”—seems especially appropriate.

Jackson, who grew up in Austin, believes Spencer can be “the spark that takes a student to the next step.” He also thinks the school should be a “beacon of hope” for entire families and their community, a realization he made while going through the Administration and Supervision program. “Loyola changed my life,” he says. “I began to understand that being an educational leader in the building was not enough. I needed to be a voice for a community that might not have a voice otherwise.”

Jackson “exudes a sense of mission,” according to Janis Fine, PhD, graduate program director of Loyola’s Administration and Supervision program. “It’s one thing when other people believe in you, but he works with them in such a way that they come to believe in themselves.”

Jackson began by forging a stronger connection with parents. The school opened its computer labs to parents, partnering with City Colleges of Chicago so they can take courses, prepare for the GED test, and learn computer skills. They also work on resumes and search for employment. In addition to providing services for them, Jackson welcomed parents into the building as volunteers called Parent Scholars.

Jackson also applied for a grant to enable Spencer to become one of a handful of Technology Academies in the CPS system. These schools, located in struggling areas, infuse technology into instruction and curriculum. Many students don’t have computers at home, and the local library only has five. Now, at Spencer, there are seven computer labs. Jackson says he has “begged and borrowed” to set up the labs, getting used equipment and grants from companies, organizations, and universities.

Spencer also has a gymnasium full of Nintendo Wii’s, where students can play. “There’s no playing outside, and there’s no bowling alley or skating rink in Austin,” Jackson says. “So we made it our obligation to provide those opportunities in the building.”

Jackson credits the teachers with helping set Spencer on a new course. He describes himself as a hands-off leader and believes his job is to articulate where the school needs to go, provide resources to support the teachers, monitor progress, set goals, and provide motivation.

Since he took over at Spencer, Jackson has set incremental and realistic goals. “To motivate the organization to move forward, we all had to believe it was possible,” Jackson says. The school still has not met the federal target, but he believes that will come in good time.

For now, Jackson measures success based on individual student growth and whether students are learning the skills to succeed in a global society. He also measures teacher growth as a part of Spencer’s progress, encouraging them to pursue master’s and doctorate degrees. But the most important way to gauge whether Spencer is moving forward, according to Jackson, is to walk down the halls and witness the way students feel about their school and themselves. “It used to be that they wouldn’t look you in the face. Now they can’t stop talking,” he says with a smile.

Jackson says students have more confidence in their abilities, and the entire school community—from parents to staff to students—is no longer willing to accept failure. This, he says, is the accomplishment of which he is most proud.

Story courtesy of Loyola magazine (Winter 2012).