Grenita Lathan

Superintendent, Peoria Public Schools

I was born in Jackson, Georgia, where I lived until I was 13, and graduated from high school in Asheville, North Carolina. As such, both Jackson and Asheville are home to me. I still vividly recall something I wrote in my high school memory book: my desire to become a principal within 10 years of graduating high school. I started my career in education as a high school business education teacher in Eden, North Carolina. It wasn’t long before I had a tremendous opportunity for professional growth. I pursued administrative certification and became a middle school assistant principal. I was well on my way to realizing my teenage dream!

Eventually, I pursued graduate studies. I was offered a principalship at a K-12 alternative school in Oak Forest, Illinois, while completing a doctorate at Southern Illinois University. Working as an alternative school principal was a rewarding experience for me because I was a part of a team that made the difference by providing a second chance to children who had been written off by traditional schools.

In 2004, I was presented with the opportunity to become principal of a persistently low-performing elementary school that was slated to be closed if the outcomes for students did not dramatically improve. Though 98 percent of my students were eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, my team and I refused to have our school defined by the prevailing stereotypes. Together, we rolled up our sleeves and worked to increase proficiency in reading and mathematics by implementing The Village Codes, which produced dramatic reductions in inappropriate behavior and suspensions. As a team, we established a school culture that embraced collaboration, creativity and communication.

After this turnaround effort, I was recruited to relocate to the West Coast to supervise 107 elementary principals as chief elementary school improvement officer for the nation’s eighth largest public school district. After a year in San Diego, I assumed the position of deputy superintendent with oversight responsibilities for 220 schools and various departments and divisions to support school operations. I currently serve as the proud superintendent of Peoria Public Schools. I am married and have one child, who is a student in our district.
 
Major Accomplishments of 2011
It has been an active year for us at Peoria Public Schools. We have launched several initiatives to communicate with our families and community. We know that this communication involves more than telling things to parents and concerned citizens, so we also have multiple ways to get feedback to improve what we do as a district. Last school year, we held 10 parent forums in all regions of our school district, and we are well into this year’s slate of parent forums. We developed “Remarkable Times TV” as a six-times-a-year news and information segment that airs on Public Access Channel 22 in conjunction with CAPtions. Similarly, we launched a weekly e-newsletter available to all families and the community.

And there’s much more: we held our first “State of the District” address in collaboration with the Chamber of Commerce, and we developed a marketing campaign to promote the Remarkable Rules (Respect the Customer, Respect Learning, Respect our Finances and Respect Individual Differences).

In addition to improving support, service and communication externally, I felt it was important to also focus efforts internally. We have initiated a more personal approach in providing more services to District 150 employees. For example, we created an assignment plan that provided all human resource specialists the opportunity to work with non-certified and certified staff from entry to exit in our district. Also, I personally participated in the collective bargaining process for our latest teacher’s union contract, which resulted in 30 additional minutes of learning time for our students. I value the dedication and hard work of our teachers, and I am committed to creating a world-class district by redefining teaching and learning.

Perhaps the most exciting accomplishments for all of us in District 150 are the initiatives we have implemented as a result of conversations and communication. Many of these initiatives would not have been implemented were it not for our retooled communication practices. Here is a sampling of what is underway this school year:

  • Reopened Woodruff as an alternative school and career and technical center that includes four programs: the former Knoxville Center for Success (5-8), Greeley, Peoria Alternative High School and Primary Alternative Program. Woodruff Career and Technical Center also provides training opportunities for high school students in construction trades, electrical, manufacturing, cosmetology, engineering and health sciences.
  • Restructured Trewyn 5-8 school into a K-8 school and added the ELITE Program
  • Expanded the International Baccalaureate Programme to include Charter Oak, Mark Bills, Sterling and Trewyn
  • Added school counselors to the middle schools, including Glen Oak
  • Developed and implemented an automated employee evaluation record-keeping and monitoring system
  • Secured School Improvement Grants for Peoria and Manual high schools
  • Changed the programming at the Knoxville Center for Success to serve high school students. The program provides transition services to students returning to the district from the Department of Corrections and provides services to pregnant teens. It also provides half-day programming for students who work.

 

What is your secret to maintaining a balance between your work and personal life? I learned long ago from my mentors that the secret to maintaining a healthy work-life balance involves putting family first and developing solid organizing skills. Education is important work, and it commands our attention and involvement. In order to give my best to our district each day, it is essential that I spend quality time with my family.

What is the best piece of advice you ever received? My grandmother was a special lady, and she gave me the best piece of advice. She would tell me, “Don’t compromise your values to obtain acceptance from others.” She reminded me of this throughout my high school years. I heard it in college. She encouraged me through her actions and her words to be true to myself and to be the best "me" I could be. She reminded me that "all things work for the good of those that love the Lord." And though she's no longer with us, I hear her words, simple and profound: “Don’t compromise your values to obtain acceptance from others.” When I encounter a challenge or a (temporary) roadblock, I reflect on our many, many conversations around the kitchen table. Somehow, she could always help me through any situation with a home-cooked meal and a glass of sweet tea!

In your opinion, is there still a glass ceiling for women in 2011? I believe a glass ceiling still exists for women. This ceiling takes on a different makeup when it comes to women of color. To borrow a term from Sharlene Hesse-Biber and Gregg Carter, who wrote Working Women in America, our ceiling isn't always glass; sometimes it is concrete. They contend that the glass ceiling for minority women tends to be more rigid and less likely to shatter. The twin evils of sexism and racism create and sustain situations and environments wherein minority women must work harder and have twice as many skills to move up the career ladder as men. I've learned that we must come to the table with a full set of tools to shatter or crumble whatever ceilings we encounter. iBi

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