Building Community in School – Insights from a Principal Fellow

Mitchell Elementary School, located in the Ukrainian Village neighborhood, is small by design. With about 400 students, Principal Nicole Milberg works hard to ensure that Mitchell is a safe space for this small but richly diverse community. “We try to be really thoughtful about how we’re making this a home for all of the students and families here,” she says. In her seventh year as principal at Mitchell, Nicole is looking forward to deepening a sense of family, increasing school pride and showcasing the unique talents of the Mitchell “bobcats.”

Nicole regularly creates a sense of school pride by bringing students and families together around a central theme. Two years ago, for example, the theme was “Global Cats,” which built off Mitchell’s bobcat mascot. Programming focused on celebrating diversity, and culminated with a Cultural Night, in which students from 25 countries shared something about their culture.

Last year, the theme was “Bold Cats.” Students, teachers and parents alike focused on becoming bolder and being comfortable with failure. Nicole started a book club in which she and parents read The Gift of Failure by Jessica Lahey. Parents discussed the importance of allowing their children to practice handling mistakes. The book club led to rich conversation and tangible changes in the school.“Now when kids forget their homework at home, parents aren’t rushing to bring it to them,” Nicole says. “Parents came away feeling empowered about how they don’t have to own everything.”

In addition to working with students and parents, Nicole works with teachers around specific professional learning themes. Last year, Nicole and two of her teachers participated in The Fund’s Summer Design Program (SDP) to brainstorm solutions to challenges with middle school social dynamics. “Classes are small,” Nicole says, “so one thing students were asking for was just more friends — more people they could talk to.” With the help of SDP, Nicole and her team designed a middle school advisory program in which students in sixth through eighth grades come together in single gender groupings two times a week. As a result, students built relationships across grade levels and expanded their social groups.

Nicole also works with staff to develop camaraderie. Before school opens every fall, Nicole takes her team out of the building for a day to build personal relationships. “Having that time to talk about ourselves – not instruction – is important,” Nicole says.

One year, Nicole did not hire any new staff members and decided to skip the outing. A few months into the year, she realized that the benefit of this time was not just for helping new teachers adjust. “It’s about setting the tone,” she says. “It’s not like we needed to get to know each other, but we needed that time to sustain our relationships.” While most principals pop into the students’ lunchroom each day, Nicole eats her lunch with the staff. “I like it. I enjoy them. It’s a good way to know what’s happening,” she says.

Nicole is now looking to extend her community outside of her school by participating in the Chicago Principals Fellowship. “The first couple of years in the role, you’re trying to tread water and manage whatever’s happening,” says Nicole. “After a couple of years, you need an infusion of learning to think about how to bring your school to the next level.” As an Independent Schools Principal, Nicole believes that this additional learning is especially important to her, as she’s not part of a network that meets regularly. She looks forward to being a Fellow and is excited to learn from other excellent principals from around Chicago.