Vanesa Scott-Thompson has been in the education game for almost two decades, and her career took an impactful turn when she became the principal of the Young Women’s Leadership Charter School of Chicago (YWLCS) three years ago. I chatted with her about her start in education and what her school is doing for Chicago’s girls.
Who or what inspired you to become an educator?
I come from a family of educators. My great-aunt was one of the first African-American principals in Alabama. My uncle was a principal in Mississippi of a high school. My aunt is a retired community college professor. My mother is a retired teacher and my sister is a scheduler/registrar at our alma mater. Although I had a degree in education, upon graduation I worked in the governor’s office and I did not enjoy it. I ended up calling my student teaching site and they needed a maternity leave teacher so I jumped at the opportunity and I have been an educator since.
What does it mean for you to be an African-American woman and educator leading a school that serves young women of color?
My belief is that people can only be what they can see. YWLCS is 80 percent free and reduced-price lunch so it is my responsibility to provide girls with opportunity and access so that they can break the cycle of poverty over their lives. I know that opportunity and access, or the lack thereof, are key indicators to shifting socioeconomic status. As a married mother of two, with a doctoral degree and faith based, my children benefit from my lifestyle and that is why I build the capacity of faculty/staff so they can boost our girls to their dreams and purpose.
How has YWLCS evolved under your leadership?
There have been a myriad of changes. We have a revived focus on STEM programming, a refreshed website and a refocus on our four pillars: academic achievement, career and college preparation, leadership and personal and social development. We adopted our LEADERS principles which shape our culture/climate. We have two new courses: drama and the principles of biomedical science. We have received funding from ComEd and Calculated Genius for future STEM programming in engineering. We recently received funding from PwC Charitable Foundation, where one of our board member works, to support our college and career pillar.
What does educating the “whole girl” mean to you?
Educating the whole girl is aligned to my educational philosophy and it is why I stay in education. I believe that every girl deserves a school that will address her academic, social-emotional and physical needs. The academic needs will be addressed through a learning environment that is student centered and intellectually engaging. The socio-emotional needs will be addressed through celebrations of their successes and interventions by a counselor, social worker or case manager when necessary. The physical needs will be addressed through healthy meals at breakfast and lunch, a health/fitness course sequence and a warm, orderly and safe place to learn.
How critical is parent and community engagement in educating the whole girl and shaping the culture of your school? What opportunities have you identified to improve and encourage both?
This is a difficult question for me because I have yet to fully realize how parent engagement changes schools. Parent-teacher conferences and open houses are well attended by parents. Also, when there is an event that features our girls such as a performance or a ceremony, our parents are present. However, when I desire to have a family advisory council meeting to discuss how we can partner, I have about six parents who are committed to that work. I have learned to integrate home-school partnership discussions in events since I have a captive audience!
If your students and staff had to describe you, what would they say?
My title as a principal is a misnomer because I really function as an executive director. However, recently a couple of teachers have shared that I work hard behind the scenes and it is evident that I am passionate about changing the school narrative and raising the profile of our school. When I interact with the girls they thank me for the many changes I have made to the school and how the school is improving. For example, we have revived our mentoring program for 12th-graders and we have student ambassadors who represent us at external events.
Lastly, what’s the best part of your work day?
I love when I can sit down with visitors or external partners and share with them what YWLCS is embarking upon. I do a presentation of our school that includes our demographics and a breakdown of our pillars and then we do a tour of the school. Once a visitor or external partner shows interest, I then share our volunteer and mentoring opportunities. Then my external affairs and development director cultivate them until we can get them to attend Girl Power, our premiere luncheon that showcases our school and is our largest fundraiser of the year.