Bigger insights: A Q&A with Salvador Velasco
In his first year as principal at Lindbergh Elementary School, Salvador Velasco focuses more on the longview than he did at his former position in the Chicago Public Schools.
This is your first year in Madison, and as principal at Lindbergh Elementary. What excites you about your new position?
The long-term vision that Dr. [Jennifer] Cheatham has for the district and the proactive steps we’re taking to support English language learners and students of color through Excellence with Equity. Also, some of the work we’re doing to establish schools as locations that support community development outside of class hours is really exciting—both for students and nonstudents alike.
You’re from Chicago and were working in their public school system right out of college. When did you decide you wanted to be in education?
As a student at the University of Illinois Chicago, I originally wanted to be an architect, but I quickly realized that wasn’t the direction for me. So almost by chance I started volunteering at a local school in the city, and that’s where I developed a passion for education; I wanted to help students who had similar challenges as me growing up.
One of my main focuses has been literacy for English language learners. After college I was a teacher for five years in a predominantly Mexican neighborhood called Little Village. That was great for me, because even though I share the same ethnicity, Little Village is really a port of entry, so there were a lot of English language learners, whereas my neighborhood [Logan Square] was much more gentrified. Once I attained my master’s degree, that led to a literacy coordinator position, then a job at the Chicago Public Schools’ central office as a citywide literacy coordinator. So that’s always been a key focus for me.
What would you identify as the most pronounced difference between Chicago and Madison schools?
Well, at Lindbergh I’m at a very ethnic and racially diverse school, which is more common in Chicago than it is here. But that’s to be expected given the demographic makeup of both cities. With the work itself, and how Madison is handling Common Core state standards, Dr. Cheatham has done a lot to establish consistency for teachers and students in that regard, with some measurable success as well.
It seems like we hear about a new national, state or local education initiative every few years. That can’t be a good thing for teachers and students, who need some consistency to thrive. Do you think Madison is in a good position in that regard?
Yeah, coming from Chicago that kind of change from year to year—and all from the top down—was very common. Here, we’re looking further into the future, building over time, and principals and teachers are more engaged and integrated in establishing effective policies.
One of the district’s keys for elementary education is improved reading comprehension. How is that going at Lindbergh?
What we’re really working to improve is reading of complex texts at appropriate grade levels so students are beginning to understand the sequence of a story, break down different ideas that are being presented and build recognition of what lessons are being taught. At each grade level we want teachers to model the actual skill we’re working on, then the teacher works directly with a student to guide their practice of the skill, and ultimately let the students move toward collaboration and independence. At the kindergarten level, the skill we might want to introduce is: Can a student identify the beginning, middle and end of a story? At fourth grade we’ll try to go deeper and see if we can introduce ideas like similes and metaphors.
What are the immediate challenges you’re identifying with your approach to reading comprehension and how are you able to address them?
Our student population is considered about eighty percent low income, so we do have situations where students don’t have support at home, for whatever reason, to build basic skills. On reading, right now [in] grades three through five we’re at twenty-eight percent proficiency, so we’re trying to be very proactive in supporting parents and helping them build the capacity to assist in their child’s learning.
When you look down the road, what do you want your school to look like five or ten years from now?
I want our approach to the Excellence with Equity program to really come to fruition academically, socially and emotionally. I certainly want our students to be meeting the standards and achieving at a high level, but I also want there to be a sense of community that goes beyond what takes place in the classroom.