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New school year at St. Nicholas Cathedral School a buzz with change in the Ukrainian Village
There is always a buzz in the air when a new school year begins, but this year the air around Ukrainian Village's St. Nicholas Cathedral School, 2200 W. Rice St., is more like the fourth of July. The reason is Dr. Susan Kurland, the school's new principal.
A product of public school education and a teacher in New York and then a Chicago Public School (CPS) teacher and administrator, Kurland believes that every school should be a choice for everyone. "All schools should be schools of excellence and you should find the best school for your child.
"I am here to help this group of dedicated people to maintain a caring environment and to create a vibrant school of excellence in the neighborhood for all people in the neighborhood. That is my goal."
Kurland's future path
"I have to make it so everyone is welcome, that we value all cultures and that we think about what tools children need and we bring that to them. We then use that to determine everything else we do.
"I know that because we are a Cathedral School, one of our main premises is being godly and it changes everything you do in a school. It is very different being a principal in a parochial school versus a public school. That is a choice and it is a good choice for me.
"My child went to a private school that I didn't like but it was better than a public school in Chicago at the time. Public school was not an option then and I didn't want to move to the suburbs."
Standardize testing at St. Nicholas is Terra Nova. "We have done well, " says Kurland. "We have done well enough through the grades and have done very well in 8th grade. We get students in schools such as Walter Payton, St. Ignatius and Northside Prep. We have a really good track record of that, but are we good enough? It is harder and harder to get into these schools.
"When I was transforming Nettelhorst, my parents said that it was harder to get a child into kindergarten than Harvard, because there were fewer spots. So do you pay for education in the lower grades or higher? Class size, excellence and cost are some of the things parents must consider when making their choice."
While the two buildings of the school campus at Rice and Leavitt can accommodate 1,000 students, there are 11 teachers and 125 students in pre-school through 8th grade. There needs to be 250 students to breakeven. This year members of the community are raising money to keep the school afloat in the hopes that by making changes, more students will be attracted to the school for next year. It is a grassroots effort.
"This is the year we have to prove that we are special and that we are walking the walk and talking the talk. We have to show that we are welcoming, a school of excellence and about healthful children," explains Kurland.
She has already instituted recess 5 days a week, a longer lunch period so kids can eat and talk and time for teachers to collaborate. "Children do not have enough time to play in today's world, but it is as important as anything else. They learn how to collaborate. They learn that life is not just about money but about what you do with people, how you treat them," continues Kurland.
"I am very engaged in hands-on, being available, being sure that nobody leaves without knowing the best that we are. They may not choose to have their children come here, but let it be their choice not because they did not know about us."
Kurland's track record
In 1999 Lakeview's Nettelhorst Elementary School welcomed 14 bus loads of children every day. Of the 242 neighborhood children who went to CPS schools none went to Nettelhorst. It was an under-utilized school. In 9 years, the school had 7 principals. By the time she left Nettelhorst in 2007**, enrollment included 75% neighborhood children.
Board of Trustees answers challenge
Challenged by a decline of school age Ukrainians living in the neighborhood and wanting a parochial education, the school's Board of Trustees was faced with attracting students to an institution delivering Ukrainian culture three times a week. Enrollment numbers became less each year.
Realizing that to survive and flourish things had to change, the Board decided to look at change. Then one day on a plane between Long Island, NY, and Chicago, it happened. A friend of Jacqueline Edelberg and Irka Tkaczuk sat next to each other. Some call it luck. Others call it divine intervention. Tkaczuk chairs the Board and was working on a presentation about the school. (Edelberg wrote a book with Kurland.) The discussion led to Edelberg connecting Kurland and Tkaczuk.
In a short period of time, interviews were set up and meetings were held and a contract was signed. The hiring indicates that the 77-year-old Ukrainian institution opted for a new beginning.
The Trustees believe that the Ukrainian culture should never be lost at the school. There are enough people there to provide that. But they are evaluating appropriate balance of culture and the rest of the educational offerings.
Early response to change
At a pre-opening day assembly, Kurland announced that healthy eating habits are part of the drive toward excellence and that there were rules for dress too. Clearly she put the responsibility on parents as well as school staffers. "No rewarding with sweets. Erasers, pencils, other such things such as stars are fine but not food." Just a couple of weeks into it, even the teachers are pleased at decreasing waistlines.
Most parents are thrilled with the new changes, says Tkaczuk.
Teachers are appreciative of time during the school day for collaboration with fellow teachers as well. The day of this reporter's interview, we took a brisk walk to a classroom with 1st and 2nd graders. Kurland is making a point of interacting with the students while the teachers interact with each other. All the students know her, greeting her in unison with, "Good morning Dr. Kurland."
We will see what the school's report card looks like in 6 months or so.
*Photos courtesy of Max Hryhorasz
**How to Walk to School: Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance authored by Dr. Kurland and Jacqueline Edelberg, tells the story of the Nettelhorst experience.
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