An Interview with WITS Board of Directors Educators: Dr. Olimpia Bahena and Principal Sydney Golliday

Principal Golliday with Drake students at CBOE
Principal Golliday with Drake students at CBOE for the last day of the Workplace Mentoring Program.

Listening to the voices of educators and our partners in schools is critically important for WITS’ delivery of high-quality programs that drive students to the love of reading. Dr. Olimpia Bahena, Principal of Talcott Fine Arts and Museum Academy, and Sydney Golliday, Principal of John B. Drake Elementary School, are long-time partners of WITS. They recently expanded their support of WITS by contributing their educational expertise and role as advocates for students as new members of WITS’ Board of Directors. Below, Dr. Bahena and Principal Golliday share their paths and philosophies as educators, as well as how they maximize WITS support for their students.

Describe your path as an educator.

Dr. Bahena with WITS Program Coordinator Kevin Hujar
Dr. Bahena with WITS Program Coordinator Kevin Hujar at the 2017 WITS Annual Meeting.

Olimpia Bahena: My father was a teacher and now I know that this made an impact on my journey as an educator. My first experience with teaching was as a French teacher. I was fortunate to be immersed in the French language when I got a scholarship to attend a French private high school in Mexico City. I loved teaching, but at that moment in time I didn’t consider this to be my professional path. It was not until I came to Chicago, more than 20 years ago, that I finally realized teaching was my passion. I came to Chicago expecting to stay for a few months to improve my English, but life is full of surprises, and I never went back. I worked very hard to get a provisional certificate as a bilingual teacher. I began as a substitute and then as a 5th grade bilingual teacher in the Back of the Yards neighborhood. I immediately started developing my own vision as an educator in an urban setting, teaching students whose parents were immigrants, who came to this country with hope and dreams. I felt a sense of responsibility that has become a passion that drives me every day though the countless challenges I have faced.

Sydney Golliday: I took a non-traditional path to teaching. My major was pre-law. My mom was an educator, and I fought it for years but eventually I realized that I also wanted to teach. I did my certification with a program called Teachers for Chicago. I was put right into the classroom while enrolled in a Master’s in Education program at DePaul. I began my career as a literacy and reading teacher at Crane High School, and continued teaching in their English department for a total of seven years. After that, I became the Assistant Principal at Crane and held the position for another seven years. In 2014, I applied for the Chicago Leadership Collaborative and was selected into the doctorate program at Loyola. Through that program, I was placed at Helie Elementary School under Alfonzo Carmona and fell in love with elementary education. My passion is education, and I welcomed the opportunity to make an impact on students earlier in the elementary school space. After one year of residency, I applied for a position at Drake Elementary School and became the Interim Principal, which eventually led to a full-time position at Principal.


What is your educational philosophy?

OB: As an immigrant that happened to be educated, I understand the value of education and how this empowers minority children, who will ultimately be our future generation.

SG: My mantra for education is leaving things better than the way that you found them. To make that improvement educating, empowering, and inspiring communities of learners needs to happen. For me, communities of learners mean students, staff, parents, the larger community, and in bringing everyone together we can have a greater impact for our children to have a better future.


Describe the importance of literacy in your school and among your students.

OB: Literacy is such a complex concept that involves listening, speaking, reading, writing and especially thinking. It is clear to me that we must engage our students in learning experiences in which they can use and enhance each aspect of literacy in a way that promotes high-level thinking. We do this with the notion of breaking the status quo. We must defy the deficit thinking that prevails in education about low income and minority students having a hard time learning. In order to tap into our students’ potential, we must plan instruction taking into consideration their funds of knowledge.

SG: I have a six-year-old so I’m learning from the teachers and then sharing my stories with my parents because from a very early age I had a literacy rich life. My mom is Dr. Stewart, so education was high reaching from the beginning. My father was a police officer and a reverend. My grandmother had set the goal for the entire family, the children and grandchildren, that everyone had to finish high school and go on to college. My mother was the first in my family to go to college and she impressed upon all of us the importance of reading. We had magazines, books, and I was always participating in literacy programs at school. I try to translate the foundation in literacy that I received to my students. Students need to learn to read, and we try to expose them to as many literacy opportunities at school as possible. We get books donated from Bernie’s Book Bank, among others, and we give them to students at every event that we have. It’s important for us to stress to our students the importance of education and literacy. We know what the statistics say, so I make sure I have the right people at school to make sure that we can give opportunities to our students and achieve the vision of improving academics.


What about the work of WITS appeals to you and what is the value that WITS brings to your school?

OB: WITS’ work is in alignment with my mission as an educator. We have been in partnership with WITS for around 10 years. I have seen through the years how students and mentors build relationships that not only enhance literacy skills in our students, but a sense of confidence for their future. The fact that our students, mainly Latino, can be guided by mentors that may look different than them is a great step to start moving towards a real idea of diversity. I respect WITS’ vision and the impact that they are making on students’ lives. We are so fortunate to have a partnership with WITS. We benefit from the programs that WITS offers such as WITS Kindergarten, Mid-Day Mentoring, Workplace Mentoring, Early Childhood Summer Program and the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award. Through these programs, students develop their literacy skills, foster relationships with adults, and enhance their confidence and self-esteem. Teachers that receive a Rochelle Lee Teacher Award participate in high-level, quality professional development and can build an environment of books in their classrooms.

Principal Golliday with Drake Elementary Alum Nicholas Goodloe at the 2017 WITS Annual Meeting.

SG: I welcome WITS as a partner because we’re in alignment to develop literacy rich experiences for students. As a program, WITS builds relationships through the same mentors are coming back each week to show the students that someone cares about them and is interested in their growth. I believe that every child deserves the same kind of educational opportunities, and so, the question is: how do we provide that for the students? We can’t do it alone. WITS is a perfect opportunity that helps us exponentially impact students through additional support from people who care about children and their future. The data shows it too, students who participated in WITS outperform their peers.


What most excites you about joining WITS’ Board of Directors?

OB: I am excited to be part of the WITS’ Board of Directors because I have so much respect for WITS as an organization. I consider their mission of making an impact on students in Chicago so commendable. WITS understands how critical it is for all students to be proficient readers. It is an honor to contribute to the growth of WITS.

SG: Being a part of WITS’ Board of Directors aligns with my goal of being a principal and expanding my impact. When I was a classroom teacher I could only impact my 20-30 students and as an administrator I get to impact the whole school. On the Board of Directors, I have a one-on-one relationship with others with skills to assist and I get to speak the truth of the students who are not heard. I am an advocate and warriors for them every day, and I feel like that’s my role on the board.


Interview by Eric Coleman, Development & Communications Manager