A new outlook for Laraway schools
By Tina Akouris email@example.com October 19, 2012 5:04PM
New principal Paula Sereleas (center) watches as Cortez Lewis, 8, (left) and Daniel Vann (right), 8, smell Smencils, scented pencils, she gave them at Laraway School Friday, Oct. 12, 2012, at 275 W. Laraway Rd. in Joliet. | Matthew Grotto~Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 22, 2012 6:03AM
The boy walked into the principal’s office complaining of a headache and some nausea. Upon hearing this, the principal walked out of her office and did what mothers do: She put her hand on the boy’s forehead and spoke gentle reassurance in the boy’s ear.
But to be on the safe side, the principal guided the boy into her inner office and told him to sit and rest while the school nurse was called. She touched the boy’s hand and he grabbed hers, not letting go no matter how hard she tried to wrest it away.
“Give me back my hand,” she laughed.
The boy finally let go. It was a gesture of trust that wasn’t lost on Paula Sereleas. Only a month into the school year, the native of Britain had gained the trust of most of the staff and students at Laraway School District 70c in Joliet.
Sereleas is in her first year as principal at Laraway School and Oak Valley School in Preston Heights, a fresh face amid a tumultuous two years in the district that saw a principal retire and then his replacement resign amid allegations of fraud. Sereleas said she signed a multi-year contract over the summer and is emphatic that she is committed to the district.
With a new principal come new initiatives for the two schools, particularly in the areas of test scores and technology. The immediate concern is improving the district’s Illinois Scholastic Aptitude Test scores.
But another goal is to improve technology in the classroom. And the hiring of Brian Johnson as Laraway’s technology director is a big step in that direction.
There is also a long-range goal of getting more non-athletic extracurricular activities implemented. The school already has an established relationship with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Joliet and the plan is to have more extracurriculars for elementary-school-age children.
Picking up the pieces
Staff members hint at past troubles at Laraway but don’t directly discuss former Principal Tashona Marshall, who was arrested in April on charges she forged documents that allowed a convicted killer to work at the school.
Marshall, who was a first-year principal, was only at Laraway for a semester before she resigned in January.
But even before that incident, the district struggled to find permanent leadership at the superintendent level.
Laraway had an interim superintendent in Gary Bradbury after Doug Hesbol was moved to principal at Oak Valley. Bradbury is now the permanent superintendent and Sereleas has replaced Hesbol at Oak Valley.
“The morale was low here as a whole,” said Laraway dean of students Nathan Griffith, who has been at Laraway for 15 years.
“Prior to last year, we had a long-time principal who retired and we were used to running things a certain way. And then we changed to another principal who was here for a few months. We kept asking, ‘How many times can we start and stop?’”
Over the summer, the school board interviewed a batch of finalists for the job. But Sereleas wasn’t among them. She was under contract at Frankfort’s Summit Hill School District 161. She was an assistant principal and principal there for five years.
“One of the finalists called her and said, ‘Paula, this job is for you and your strengths are really needed there,’ ” Griffith said. “They granted one last interview for her — and she nailed it.”
During the first week of school Sereleas introduced herself to every student in the building. Griffith said he had never seen a new principal make such a gesture, but he thinks it showed students and teachers that Sereleas wasn’t going anywhere. Laraway and Oak Valley aren’t just pit stops for her.
“There’s a sense of optimism right now and it takes people time to trust, and I’m willing to put that time in,” Sereleas said.
Like the little boy in her office, whose trust she has already won.
An urban-rural school
The demographics of Laraway’s student body are 70 percent African-American, 25 percent Hispanic and 5 percent white. Oak Valley has about 140 students in pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, early childhood and first grade.
Laraway’s population is about 300 from second to eighth grades. Sereleas calls the school, on Laraway Road just down the street from Chicagoland Speedway, “an urban school in a rural setting.”
And because it is in a rural setting, there are no sidewalks near Laraway School and only a few near Oak Valley. It’s a detail that many don’t think about, but Sereleas sees the bigger picture.
The majority of students take the bus to Laraway and Oak Valley, which makes sense when one realizes that there are no sidewalks near the schools. Hence, children and their parents don’t walk to school and don’t have opportunities to meet and converse with other parents and students. Something as unnoticed as that made Sereleas realize that she and her staff has to make an extra effort to get to know parents.
“Every school I’ve ever worked in, the best connections are made on the sidewalk with the parents at the beginning and end of the day,” Sereleas said. “In every other role I’ve had, I’ve started the morning outside on the sidewalk and I make those connections with parents. But now I have to think outside the box and find other ways to communicate.”
One of those ways was the district’s annual health fair last month organized by district nurse Cheryl Stokes. The fair drew hundreds of parents and students, as well as representatives from health-related businesses around Joliet. It was a good example of the Laraway community coming together.
Tamika Archibald is the parent of a second-grader at Laraway. But she is also the secretary at Oak Valley, and Sereleas said Archibald has helped to give her ideas in better connecting with parents.
“What I do see is a positive morale in the district,” Archibald said. “We’re always looking for more parental involvement. There has been a positive impact over time.”
DePaul, here I come!
Warrington, England sits between Manchester and Liverpool, and when Sereleas was 17 she left the comforts of England for DePaul University in Chicago’s Lincoln Park neighborhood on a track and cross-country scholarship.
Sereleas went into DePaul not knowing what she’d study. But at some point she felt education was her calling, and she ended up student teaching at Lincoln Park High School in the mid-1990s.
At the time, the school was made up mostly of kids who lived at the nearby Cabrini Green housing projects. Since Sereleas was a student teacher, she was assigned to lower level academic classes.
“It made a significant impact on me to where I felt like that [group] was where I should be serving and it was rooted in me early to serve the community,” Sereleas said. “The parents were all very hard working and truly valued the importance of education.”
Sereleas is trying to change the negative perception of her new school district and create a more positive outlook for her staff.
“I think the biggest challenge for her is just gaining everyone’s trust, through no fault of her own, it’s because of all the turmoil we’ve had in the past couple of years,” Griffith said. “We’ve had several faces come in and out and she needs to gain the trust of all the people who buy in.”