Ames Middle School principal Lorraine Cruz welcomes her students as they pass through metal detectors to begin the day. (Photo by Carlos J. Ortiz)

When Lorraine Cruz walks into Ames Middle School each morning, she passes through metal detectors and an X-ray machine, devices that serve as a reminder of the situation she walked into when she became Ames’ principal in the summer of 2004.

When her predecessor left, half of the teachers also took flight. “There was a big disconnect between the teachers and the students,” said Cruz, the fourth principal at Ames, which opened in 1998.

Of the school’s nearly 400 eighth-graders, 125 were enrolled in the summer school program. Other area schools had just five or six students in summer school, she said. “I was thinking, ‘How can this be? What is going on here?’ I expected year one to be a rebuilding year.”

She didn’t stop building after the first year.

Cruz prioritized literacy, partnerships with community leaders, focused professional development and student discipline. She also developed a new curriculum. Three years later, the school is improving. The percentage of Ames students who meet or exceed Illinois State Board of Education standards has risen each year since 2003, climbing from 31 percent to 38 percent, according to board data.

Researchers have identified leadership, like the kind Cruz has displayed, as one of the concrete ways to close the achievement gap and reverse the disadvantages facing students from poor families.

“The mindset of schools being holding places and housing centers and babysitters—that’s not what we are,” Cruz said. “By bringing everyone in, they see that that’s not what we are. So the impression of what a school is changes. And it changes in a positive way.”

Cruz admits that the school was “in chaos” when she arrived. Teachers, weary of administration shifts and unruly students, had descended into “survival mode,” she said. Most of the teachers’ feedback centered on disciplinary issues—like how to identify gangs, how and when to call the police, and how to break up fights.

A product of the surrounding community herself, Cruz knew what her students faced when they weren’t in school, such as the 29 gang territories crisscrossing their routes to Ames each morning and the fact that many students’ parents were gang members.

Cruz gathered community leaders, including police commanders, aldermen, clergymen and board of education members. She told them: “You are the leadership of the community that I am serving, and I need help with what happens between home and here. I can’t do this by myself.”

Cruz continues to meet with the leaders each month, and student safety remains among the school’s top priorities, along with programs and curriculum, said Nancy Aardema, executive director of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, which helped push for Ames’ creation as a solution to overcrowded schools in the area. “She’s been really driven on this safety issue,” she said. “She doesn’t let anyone forget.”

Cruz also sought stronger connections between teachers, parents and students inside the school.

She hired a lead literacy teacher and held extensive interviews to find other educators who were passionate about teaching and who believe in their students’ potential. Cruz also wanted more racial diversity among her staff. Most of Ames’ teachers were white while all of the school’s students were African American or Latino.

She’s focused on professional development by training all staff, including lunchroom workers and janitors, increasing parental involvement through efforts like a “walking” school bus—at least 20 parents accompanying children on their walks to and from school each day.

Cruz also tracks down grant money to supplement the school’s budget and programming. Ames was the first school to participate in a $150,000 grant that allows six Chicago schools to implement the Facing History program, a social justice curriculum. “The amount of outside programs at this school blew me away, compared to even suburban schools or wealthier districts,” said Katie Solimine Welsh, the lead literacy teacher at Ames.

As students gather in orderly lines to depart at the end of the day, Cruz, in a light pink sweater and gray slacks, is there to hug them goodbye. She easily slips from English to Spanish, reminding “her babies” that there are “only 177 more days to go!”

Sara Semelka

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