Principles of A Principal: Creating a Nurturing School Environment For the Whole Community

By Shawn Bush, WITS Program Coordinator and Co-Editor of WITS Newsletter/Blog

Tai Basurto is the principal of southwest Chicago public school John C. Dore Elementary, Rochelle Lee Teacher Awardee and Study Group Leader, and a doctoral student finishing her capstone for the Urban Leadership program at University of Illinois – Chicago (UIC). In this piece, Tai shares how her teaching experience and passion for social justice inform how she leads and why she believes neighborhood schools are much more than just institutions of learning.

Tai Basurto grew up in northwest Chicago but did not attend Chicago Public Schools (CPS). Her father was a city police officer and it was common for children of city workers to attend Catholic school. Tai was an only child who loved to read and write, so much so that she wanted to be a professional writer. Her father was concerned that she may not be able to financially support herself as an aspiring writer, so Tai begrudgingly began taking education courses at college. Quickly, her hesitation waned and her passion developed. I realized that [education] was where my heart was. I realized that the way to really have an impact is through education and through creating mindsets and young people that are committed to kindness, to equity, to social justice.

This was not the first time that Tai felt compelled to serve others. Tai remembered first seeing Nelson Mandela walk free from prison, a formative memory for her interest in social justice. In high school and college, Tai participated in volunteer projects like providing meal plans for people who were living with HIV/AIDS in Humboldt Park, working in classrooms on an Apache reservation in Arizona, and advocating for the rights of people with disabilities in Alabama. Tai observed that her experiences were only a small part of the larger scope of humanity. “Like in the artistic form pointillism, I am one little dot in this huge picture,” she reflects, “and I have a responsibility to all of those other little dots. Together, we make up this collective.”

Tai sees her role as a principal as working toward the prosperity of the community, as well as a way to improve societal issues. “We have systems that are inherently inequitable. I don’t have an agenda where I want one group to be successful and another group not to be. I’m a woman of color, but both my parents raised me and they were both educated. I never want a child or anyone to be deprived of the opportunities that I was afforded.”

After a year at Kansas State University, Tai found that she missed the city life and finished her undergrad degree at DePaul. Through an urban education program, she also completed her master’s at DePaul as a reading specialist. After teaching in various contexts, from a low-income Catholic school to a private school downtown with more access to resources, Tai felt strongly that she wanted to be working in a Chicago neighborhood school. “I felt like as a teacher of color, I had a responsibility to be teaching students who looked like me.”

Tai began working at a public school in Wicker Park, where she taught middle school reading and writing for eight years. Tai’s successes at the school were in part due to the willingness of her administrators to allow her the freedom to change curriculum and develop her practice. When Tai became an administrator, she tried to embody those same values to create a supportive environment for her teachers. While she still misses a lot about teaching, she found the right fit at Dore. Her career as a teacher impacts her approach as a principal. “I always tell my teachers that my work isn’t harder or more important. It’s different. They are in front of children and performing for several hours at a time doing the real work. My job is to make it easier for them and to make sure that they have what they need to be effective in their practice.”

One way that Tai tries to provide opportunities for growth to her staff is through the Rochelle Lee Teacher Award Program (RLTA). Tai was an awardee multiple times as a teacher and wanted to make sure the teachers working at Dore could also benefit from the program. She felt that it was important for teachers at her school in Clearing (a southwest Chicago neighborhood) to know about and take advantage of the same opportunities as the teachers she worked with in Wicker Park. Tai is currently the RLTA Study Group Leader at her school and hopes that other teachers will be able to lead a Study Group in the coming years.

Tai’s commitment to growth and teamwork can be traced back to her metaphor about pointillism and the role of every “dot”. According to Tai, “schools are not just educational institutions, they are public institutions,” and she believes that “school should be a community center.” This “community center” philosophy is why Dore holds events, like weekly Zumba classes, available to parents and other community members after school. The shift to focusing on a supportive environment also led Tai to change the school motto to “Where All Students are Nurtured for Greatness.”

To Tai, a neighborhood school like Dore should feel like a family. “My philosophy is that if students are happy, they’re going to learn. We don’t have to be so data and test driven. Yes, that is a part of the story, but at the heart of who we are is having a community that cares about each other and that’s committed to social justice and committed to equity.”

Tai knows that many schools and communities face different challenges in achieving this environment. However, she is hopeful that one day all neighborhood schools can be a place for community and opportunity, making selective enrollment unnecessary. “My parents didn’t choose Chicago Public Schools and we lived across the street from one. I don’t think that’s the case anymore. I think people are choosing public schools and that’s what we need – everyone’s investment in our schools because they’ll be so much better.”