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When Tim Knowles, director of the Urban Education Institute, identified Tanika Island as a leader—asking her to become a campus director at the University of Chicago Charter School—she resisted. At the time, Island was the literacy coordinator at the North Kenwood Oakland Campus (NKO). She did hands-on work with teachers to impact student learning on a day-to-day basis. She knew her teachers, her students and their families. She didn’t want to lose that on-the-ground impact. Island worried that becoming the leader of NKO would mean she would become disconnected from the teaching and the teachers—disconnected from the learning of her kids.

Island’s resistance only reinforced Knowles’ determination to make her the leader of NKO. “As a teacher and an extraordinary coach of teachers, I already knew she was gifted at building cultures of achievement—among children and teachers. But, the fact that she resisted school leadership because she thought it wouldn't allow her to support teachers directly really persuaded me. Because that is exactly what the best school leaders do.”

Island soon realized her concerns were unwarranted. As the director of NKO, she would be encouraged and expected to be an instructional leader who would directly coach and develop teachers. Her on-the-ground work would be more important than ever.

Five years after taking the helm, the results speak for themselves. NKO is a non-selective school, which—every year since Island became director—has increased the number of students who meet or exceed state standards. In 2012, 86 percent met or exceeded state standards in reading, mathematics, and science, outperforming students citywide. The numbers in math and science are 92 percent. 

As a school leader, Island has met and exceeded expectations. She has recently been honored with a 2012 Community School Leadership Award from the Federation for Community Schools for her commitment to organizing resources and supports around families and students while offering extended day learning opportunities.

Over one hundred students take part in extended day activities at NKO. Regular schools hours are 8:00 a.m. - 3:30 p.m., but NKO opens its doors for extended learning during its early bird program at 7 a.m. and its after-school programming, which runs until 6 p.m. There is a position at the campus solely dedicated to extended learning and other activities to create a firm sense of community.

Tanika Island said, “We work to create strong community with our students who come from a variety of Chicago neighborhoods. My philosophy around education, in general, is that it takes a strong and collaborative community of teachers, parents, and students to do it well. We consistently work to strengthen all of these partnerships.”

Todd Barnett nominated Island for the leadership award. Barnett, who is director of Family and Community Engagement at the Donoghue Campus said, “Tanika utilizes the basic principles of community schooling—extended day, forging partnerships, empowering parents—to offer rich experiences to her staff, parents and students.” He continued,  “Tanika knows her students by name, can recite their test scores, as well as their strengths and weaknesses. Her leadership exemplifies what is possible for young people attending public schools.”

Knowles, five years after realizing he had a star in his midst, still fills with pride when talking about Island. “Tanika represents the very best kind of educator. She has extraordinary expectations for children—creating a school that is legitimately preparing every child for college. She builds trust, confidence and capacity among the teachers, parents, and community she serves. And every single move she makes is intentional, designed to create exemplary schooling for children from across Chicago's South Side.”

For a leader who resisted leadership, Tanika Island is certainly making a difference in the lives of children—while remaining in the classroom and on the ground.