Principal Tresa D. Dunbar

Principal Tresa D. Dunbar

Henry H. Nash Elementary School, Chicago, IL
Tresa D. Dunbar, Ph.D., Principal

A Pre-K-8 school in the city’s blighted west side Austin neighborhood, the Henry H. Nash Elementary School has a student population that is 99.8 percent African American;100 percent of the 800 students qualify for free and reduced price lunch according to federal guidelines. The school is part of the Chicago Public Schools, the third largest public school system in the country. In the film, Chicago Public Schools’ CEO Arne Duncan described Nash as “a low performing school historically that we could have closed.”

In 2001, the 24-year veteran principal of the school retired. During the five years that followed, Nash was led by no less than six principals – a time of upheaval that resulted in low morale and disorder. Many of these principals were at Nash for a very short time, either by their own choice or due to board removal. Since they had been without long term contracts and had various levels of commitment, establishing long-term plans and goals became paramount in order to improve conditions for teachers and students.

In 2006, the Local School Council was granted permission to select its own principal. After an extensive search, Tresa D. Dunbar, Ph.D., was chosen to lead Nash. Two new assistant principals were hired, and many staff members were dismissed.

Tresa came in with a mission of change, which she pursued with deliberation and spirit. After first observing all aspects of the school, she met with each staff member individually to ascertain what they saw as barriers to their performances. The next stage was to observe staff membersfrom teachers to janitorsto evaluate them in their work environments. All staff members had individual follow-up meetings to discuss their goals, review their performances and make decisions about how they could improve. At the same time, weekly meetings were held with students from every grade level to bring them in line with new policies and procedures regarding their behavior in and around the school. Meetings were held quarterly with parents and community members to inform them about the changes taking place at Nash and to ask them for their ideas.

All materials, books and equipment were inventoried, their benefit to children assessed and decisions made about what was needed. As a result, Tresa and her team introduced a new research-based curriculum with new textbooks. Computer equipment and software were installed and the building was upgraded to wireless to connect students to the Internet. The entire building was repainted and semi-refurbished after an extensive campaign by the Local School Council and Tresa.

Many strides have been made at Nash since July 2006. Reading scores have risen from 32.9 percent in 2005 to 47.8 percent in 2008; and math scores have risen from 36.8 percent to 45 percent in the same time period. Nash has been honored by Mayor Richard M. Daley for progress and growth on the ISAT.

New committed teachers were hired. All staff is certified; highly qualified teachers have endorsements in mathematics, computer science and science. The upper grades have been departmentalized and a new bell schedule, teacher grade level schedule and student schedule have been put in place. All students wear uniforms and adhere to the school’s dress code. Students receive backpacks on a yearly basis, and all teachers are required to take students on at least three field trips a year. The school is moving forward on its goal toward inclusioneliminating self-contained special education classes and offering all students access to regular instruction on a daily basis. In the year following the filming, the school has a more determined focus on discipline, including utilizing the Positive Behavioral Interventions and Supports (PBIS) approach.

Today, the Local School Council is very involved and supportive of the administrative team’s efforts. Parents have begun to take ownership of the school, and their children’s interest in school has increased. The PTA is very active and visible in the school; parents volunteer to help teachers on the playground and in the classrooms on a daily basis. Tresa sees Nash as a community school in which parents take responsibility to make sure their children are safe and well cared for despite the daily economic challenges they encounter.

The school prides itself in providing its students with afterschool enrichment activities including a variety of clubs, choir, boys’ and girls’ sports all-stars and a tumbling team. In the spring of 2009, Nash will begin a music program including a drumline. For two straight years Nash has been the CPS citywide 7/8th grade football champions.

For three years, Nash has received the highest rating, A, on all external lunchroom and engineering audits. All external audits regarding budget and finance have also passed with high marks. Monies have been aligned to reflect students’ needs. All staff members are given the funds, equipment and supplies to do their jobs. Adding to the school’s resources, Tresa has developed numerous partnerships with local organizations such as Washington Mutual, The City of Chicago, Westside Health Authority, Bravos Law Firm, WGN-TV (Micah Materre, Anchor), and Alderman Ed Smith, 28th Ward.

In the film, Arne Duncan said, “I have a real sense of hope in [Tresa Dunbar’s] leadership and a sense that the school is going to go in the right direction, and it is.”

Tresa D. Dunbar, Ph.D.
Two years ago, the Henry H. Nash Elementary School’s interim principal was fired and replaced by a self-assured principal named Tresa D. Dunbar, Ph.D. She had been an assistant principal at Nash under the able 24-year veteran principal, leaving in 2001 to pursue principal training. Following her training and internship program, Tresa returned to Nash as the new principal. “This was a huge school in a distressed community and the school culture was depressed,” Tresa recalls. “There was a sense of hopelessness.”

Today, Nash, which Tresa affectionately describes as “our house,” is a changed place: “We completely changed the physical environment and created a more child-friendly culture,” she relates. Initially skeptical teachers have been won over; they see by her integrity and her consistency that she really does appreciate their work, and includes them in decision making. Tresa visits every classroom on her daily rounds, acknowledging teachers and children. The Local School Council, consisting of parents, teachers and community leaders is also impressed. “She doesn’t talk out of both sides of her mouth,” one parent volunteer explains. “The interim principals were only interested in getting the job, not about what was best for our kids.”

Tresa sees herself as a highly motivated and goal-oriented instructional leader committed to supporting student achievement. She is uniquely qualified to pursue this goal at Nash. In addition to prior positions from December 2001 to July 2006 as a LAUNCH principal or assistant principal, including her year and a half at Nash, Tresa has served as a school consultant for Chicago Public Schools’ Department of Human Resources, was a teacher and social studies department chairman at an alternative school, and was employed by the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana as a teaching assistant and research assistant in the department of curriculum and instruction. She was also an evaluation specialist in the Center for Institutional Research and Evaluation at the same university. Her Ph.D. is in curriculum development and she holds endorsements in language arts, reading and social studies. Along with her management expertise, Tresa has extensive experience in designing and facilitating professional development experiences for teachers.

Tresa says that she feels extremely honored to be the principal of Nash and sees herself as just a part of the change that has occurred. She believes strongly that the school’s progress has been a shared effort; the entire process was driven by parents and students who wanted more for their community. Tresa is dedicated to her work and passionate about helping her students. In the film, she counsels a group of 7th graders in the hall. She also asks for help from a group of 7th grade parents. Tresa worries that, without the help of the people most important to them, students may not take ownership of the opportunities presented to them. So she works hard to involve their parents, believing this is the only way things will change. As part of reaching out to parents, Tresa visits homes on a regular basis, walks the neighborhood and walks students home. She opens the school on weekends so that students and families can meet with her. A driving force is Tresa’s belief that Nash must honor its commitment to all families to give their children an equal and excellent education.​