Liz Iverson

Liz Iverson stands in front of a wall of student artwork at Ancona School, 4770 S. Dorchester Ave., on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022.

Liz Iverson, who in September was appointed Ancona School’s new head of school – the private charter school equivalent of a principal – wants to sustain teacher retention and better articulate the school’s “social justice roadmap.”

Iverson has been at Ancona, 4770 S. Dorchester Ave., since 2013. She taught grades third through eighth until last year, when she stepped in as the interim head of school.

Since long-time Head of School Bonnie Wishne stepped down in 2015, a number of people have intermittently stepped up to fill the role. “There has been transition, coupled with the pandemic, so it is nice to be hitting our stride,” Iverson said. 

Iverson grew up in Chicago and attended Chicago Public Schools. After graduating from A.N.  Pritzker School in Wicker Park on the city’s North Side, she matriculated at New York University, where she studied anthropology with focuses on art history, urban studies and sex and gender.

She went on to receive a master’s degree in 2010 from Bank Street College of Education in New York City, a private graduate college founded by Chicago-born educator Lucy Sprague Mitchell, one of the founders of the progressive education movement. 

There, Iverson studied museum education with a focus on lifelong learning and “how to make outside of school time effective and useful,” she said. Afterwards, she spent a few years in museums, New York Public Schools and at the Berkeley Carroll School, an independent school in Brooklyn. 

“Teachers have always been my mentors, so (I learned) from the educators who were there before coming here to Ancona,” Iverson said. 

She moved to Hyde Park in 2013 to be closer to family and to start working at Ancona. Iverson said that part of her desire to work at Ancona came from its ‘relative rarity’ within the field of education, as it’s a school “where integration and progressive education and equity are central to the mission.” 

“In the time that I was a teacher here, I also had kids, and my children became students here,” she said, which added an additional layer of investment in the institution.  

Ancona is a pre-K through eighth grade school founded in 1962 by a group of families who wanted a progressive Montessori-based curriculum in an integrated setting. It’s an accredited Montessori school and follows the tenets of the Montessori “child-centered curriculum,” where students are given uninterrupted work time and the chance to direct some of their own learning choices. 

The school is celebrating its 60th anniversary at a gala this upcoming May. 

“It’s really amazing to see the way that the visionary idea of the founders remains true in the school today,” Iverson said. Through speaking with parents and noting the high number of admission inquiries Ancona received this year, she conjectured that “ideas(s) of equity, empathy, inquiry… are feeling really vital (to people).” 

During the pandemic, Iverson says they saw faculty turnover and shrinking class sizes. But this year they enrolled 59 new students for a total enrollment of 210 students — the school’s highest enrollment in seven years. 

“It's been the joy of a lifetime to be selected (as head of school) and to have the confidence of the board, to have the confidence of our current families and to have the confidence of our faculty,” Iverson said. 

The difference between a head of school and a principal, Iverson explained, is primarily in how much more heads of schools are asked to do by way of fundraising, as private schools function more like a small business or nonprofit driven by an ideological mission. 

In addition to serving families and students, she said she finds herself asking budgetary  questions like “How are we going to fund these things?” and “What does our building look like?”   

Going forward, Iverson said, they’re looking to sustain their faculty culture. Teachers have historically had an average tenure of 16 years at Ancona, higher than the 10 year average tenure of teachers in Chicago Public Schools. 

Iverson is also looking to expand Ancona’s culturally responsive programming and articulate their social justice roadmap, a process that Iverson said will include creating “shared definitions,” completing a curriculum review and publishing grade-level learning activities aligned with the organization Learning for Justice’s Social Justice Standards. Though the roadmap has informed Ancona’s core values, “Sometimes you do need to just reinforce and reestablish (these values), and give them some attention,” Iverson said. 

“Often, when you picture a Montessori classroom, you do really picture children working individually, with the guidance of an adult,” Iverson said. Classrooms at Ancona, however, are a bit more collaborative, and faculty help students develop “skills that are necessary to live in a diverse world,” Iverson added. 

Ancona’s tuition is scaled according to grade, but is on average about $25,000 a year. The school also offers a tuition assistance program. 

staff writer

Zoe Pharo is a graduate of Carleton College. She was recently an editorial intern for In These Times, and has also written for Little Village and Chapel Hill Magazine. 

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