In 1989, Pamela Strain, then a mother of two, was working on a master’s degree in corrections and criminal justice at Chicago State University. She planned to become an attorney.
“I was going to be an African-American Clarence Darrow,” she recalls with a smile.
But then she got involved in Dixon Elementary School in Chatham, which rekindled an earlier aspiration to become a teacher. Today Strain is an assistant principal who takes parents seriously.
“If parents want to see me, they see me,” says Strain, assistant principal at Ruggles Elementary School in Greater Grand Crossing. “If a parent calls, I take that call. If they need to stop me in the halls, I stop. I’m a parent, and I treat our parents the way I’d want to be treated. Anywhere you send your child, you should have input. After all, your child is your most valuable possession. I understand that.”
Strain was drawn to Dixon by a brother, Rodney James, who had just started teaching there; at the time, her elementary-school child was attending the local Catholic school, St. Dorothy’s. Strain says her brother “raved about the wonderful things [Dixon] was doing.”
“St. Dorothy’s was a good school, but as a taxpayer, I thought, Why should I have to pay double for what can be provided at my neighborhood school if it is equal or better educationally? So I decided to see for myself.”
Strain loved what she saw: a student-operated, in-school bank, a student-run Afrocentric store and a Kid Eyewitness News program where students videotaped stories on people in the school and community.
“We really push self-efficiency and entrepreneurial skills,” says Principal Joan Crisler, who was new to Dixon when Strain first visited. “Along the way, kids see why they need the math, the community- and human-relation skills. Or why they need to know something about the world in general to run their businesses. We try to make learning relevant here.”
Strain transferred her son to Dixon and began spending a lot of time at the school.
“I felt welcome as a parent at Dixon,” she says. “My participation and ideas were listened to and accepted. Parents had input. Maybe it was just me, [but] I didn’t feel that way about St. Dorothy’s. If fact, I felt I was perhaps too vocal for that school.”
The year Strain arrived at Dixon was the year of Chicago’s first local school council elections. Strain heard rumblings that some parents wanted to replace Crisler, who would face a council vote in 1990. Strain decided to run for the council to keep Crisler at Dixon.
“She demanded accountability from the council,” Crisler says of her chief backer. “If they didn’t want to retain me, she wanted to know why. That was my first contract, and I owe it to her persistence. That woman would move heaven and earth to get things done.”
After six months on the council, Strain began to re-evaluate her career goals.
“The parents and the staff at the school would tell me, ‘You’d make a good teacher. You’re a born leader. You have great ideas,'” Strain recalls.
Then her mother weighed in, suggesting she substitute teach during the day and attend law school at night.
“I saw some wonderful things going on in some schools and schools that needed some work, where I knew I could do more for kids,” says Strain. “I have always felt that given the nurturing and proper tools, all kids can learn.”
By 1992, Strain had abandoned her Clarence Darrow ambitions. With a bachelor’s degree in education and management already under her belt, she began working on a doctorate degree in education administration and supervision at Roosevelt University and state certification to become a principal. (She received both in 1995.)
By 1993, she was a regularly appointed teacher at Bradwell Elementary in South Shore.
“Pamela was a very good 8th-grade science teacher,” says Bradwell Principal Hulon Johnson. “She was one of our more active teachers. Some teachers strictly teach in the classrooms, and that’s it. She did things for the school, like help sponsor our science fair. You could also tell she was concerned about children.”
Strain was so concerned that she became foster mother to a Bradwell student and two siblings. By then, Strain and her husband, Louis, had three children of their own.
Strain remained at Bradwell until she went on maternity leave with her fourth child. Meanwhile, a local school council member at Nicholson Specialty School heard about Strain through a friend and asked her to apply for an 8th-grade position. When Strain returned to teaching, it was at Nicholson. Within three months, the principal at Ruggles hired her as an assistant principal.
Strain credits her mother, Silvella James, for her deep commitment to education. James was active in the educational lives of her eight children and helped put them all through college. Then, in her late 40s, she went back to school herself.
“I didn’t have a high school education, but after my kids all finished school, I thought, ‘I’m 48 years old, but I’d better get an education myself so I can communicate with them better,'” James says with a laugh. “We didn’t have much money, but I always told them they could be whatever they wanted to be. ‘I can’t’ was not in the vocabulary. And look at them, they have all been successful.”
One son is an attorney who became one of the first two African-American vice presidents at Commonwealth Edison, another son is a social worker. Her four other daughters are a dentist, a gynecologist, a social worker and a high school programming assistant at Harlan High School. James herself is a special education teacher at Penn Elementary.
Strain recently completed a stint as interim principal at Ruggles—Principal Almeda Feimster became ill and took an emergency leave.
“By the order of things it was natural for us to ask the assistant principal to step in, but also it was because we liked the way she took care of business,” says LSC Chair Mattie Austin.
Strain says her work at Dixon gave her a head start. As a local school council member, she began to learn about school budgets, the curriculum and other educational issues.
Her parental instincts set the tone. “It’s important to me to help create an environment where youngsters feel respected and appreciated,” she says. “Being a parent first, that just comes naturally.”