By Madison Bratley, Staff Writer
Melissa Resh will succeed Timothy Devine as Walter Payton’s principal this fall and will therefore help lead Payton’s future equity initiatives. Ms. Resh currently serves as an Assistant Principal and STEM Director at Lake View High School, and has previously served as an Assistant Principal at Brooks College Prep and Resident Principal at South Loop Elementary. While at Lake View, she has also been working with Equal Opportunity Schools, a national organization that works to “ensure that students of color and low-income students have equitable access to America’s most academically intense high school programs and succeed at the highest levels.” The recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and many others have brought a focus to other social justice issues, including how schools handle equity and race.
Similar to Devine at Payton, Lake View’s Principal Karafiol sent out an email of support to the school community, on how the school would support its staff and students, rally behind black students in particular, and name their specific struggle in this time. Lake View’s teachers have also used their virtual class time to process these events. “I led a discussion about how we can use our class time to really create intentional spaces for students to move through this and work through this and find constructive ways to either participate, or have voice, or ask questions in ways that felt safe,” Ms. Resh said.
Lake View also has held hour-long “Fireside Chats” over Google Meet with teachers, counselors, and the school’s equity team. “We’re checking in about how people were feeling, and what they were afraid of, and what they were seeing,” she said. “And it was just really an opportunity to come together so that we just didn’t feel isolated in what was happening.” She said about 50 students came for the series’ first session.
Ms. Resh has been attending meetings with Payton’s Black Student Union (BSU), United Payton, and the Student Advisory Council, listening and being able to “offer support where [she] can.” She has also spent her time learning about the role of the National Equity Project and looking into how data has been used “over time” and how teachers could “deepen their practice to reflect on data and make data-driven decisions about equity.”
She said her “biggest lesson so far” is seeing the “huge opportunities” for Payton students to drive the schools’ equity initiatives. Payton students are not just sharing opinions, she said, but they are taking action steps. “[Payton students] are hungry to be involved in the deep policy discussions, to engage in unpacking the systems and structures that exist at Payton that are hindering achievement, and to have frank and honest conversations with adults about those [systems and structures] and to be part of coming up with a solution,” she said. She also said the initiative students have shown and the work they have engaged in “moves” and “inspired” her, specifically citing the leadership of black students in student government and BSU and their partnership with Latin American Coalition (LAC).
She said she wants student voice to be at the center of decision making and have them at the relevant meetings, not just have them respond to decisions. “Who are the students who need to be at this table? How are they representing student voice at this school? How are we collaborating to look at the system or policy together, so that it’s not ‘I’ll report back to you and you’ll report back to me,’ it’s really about engaging students in the work at the table,” she said.
Right now, part of her transition process is “a lot of listening” about current equity initiatives. “Mostly what I’m hearing is ‘yes, and.’ We’ve done this work, and now we’re ready for the next step. And so for me right now, it’s a lot of thinking about how to do that. How to prioritize initiatives, how to connect people who I’m hearing from in different parts of the school together to come up with solutions.” For example, she said she is learning about working with others to further “work around creating safe learning environments for all students to work around curriculum and culturally responsive teaching.” She said she is committed to taking a team approach to this issue, because she is a single individual with blindspots, and she is “really eager” to work with students, teachers, and families to create “longterm shifts… that will result in more equitable outcomes” in the future.
Ms. Resh said the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others have deepened her commitment to equity. “It’s increased my sense of urgency and it has deepened my commitment to ensuring that all identities at Payton feel valued and seen and celebrated,” she said. “And that’s not just through identity clubs, but in the classroom, in the curriculum, [and] in the school. So I’m really eager and excited to do that work in collaboration with with the staff, teachers, and students.”
Recent tragedies may have also given schools a chance to engage students more in equity work. “I’m hoping that it’s opened some people up who may have been hesitant to lean into this work, or fearful of leaning into this work, or unsure of how to lean into the work,” she said. “I think for some people, that feeling of ‘okay, I’m ready’ has happened. I think that for some that shift has come. And so what I’m committed to is not losing that opportunity.”
The global pandemic compounded with recent events of police brutality have taken hold of America, and Ms. Resh believes that no one could ever say that they want life to return as they were. “What’s come to light is systemic inequities; what’s come to light are issues around who has access to education, and who doesn’t. The issues around police brutality issues, around funding, it’s bubbled up a myriad of issues of social justice issues that people now are identifying with and attaching themselves to, and that, to me, says that we’re in a position to move forward in a way that we may not have been otherwise,” she said.