Scott Scherquist, the new principal at North Kenwood's Ariel Community Academy, has big plans for teaching and learning at the elementary school.
He is a New Yorker, born and raised in Queens. At 17, he started giving piano lessons and, as someone who had himself struggled to learn in a classroom setting, "learned how to learn" as a teacher.
"I was never good at school," he said. "I had trouble retaining information. I had trouble receiving information. That traditional rote teaching method that I grew up with just wasn't for me, and in beginning to teach, I understood more how I learned. And the idea of teaching and finding different ways to differentiate to reach a learner was unique to me. It was more interesting than playing."
He started out as a music major at Queens College before transferring to New York University, where he got his bachelor's degree in music education. Then, in 2002, he joined the Peace Corps, through which he was stationed in rural northeastern Thailand, trying to implement educational reform that Bangkok had passed.
The experience was amazing, he said — he still speaks Thai — but he mainly did grant-writing, fundraising and teaching English as a second language. The education reform was to implement student-focused learning, which was not congruent, from Scherquist's perspective, with the rural area's community focus. Exams were communal: students helped each other; changing that to teacher-centered testing and closed-book, memorization-based tests didn't compute.
Upon his return to the states, he taught music in the South Bronx, taking on additional roles in his union. At a time when The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was incubating small elementaries, he spearheaded the music department of one that took root in Harlem, which was first role in school leadership. After five years, he got a master's degree in school leadership from the City College of New York.
"The schools in which I served were blatantly not serving children the way they should be served, in my viewpoint," he said. "As someone who struggled as a learner, I do recognize that my privilege of being white allowed me to not fall through a crack that a lot of our Black and brown students do fall through."
Schools that predominantly serve students of color, he noted, tend to be the ones that are understaffed, or the ones that have high staff turnover, or in which staff retention or experience is low.
"Those are the schools in which I always served. And just to know, coming from Queens, in my own schooling how it was different, how facilities were different — how they weren't even paving the streets in front of the school, so how were students even going to get to school? Some of the things were just so blatant," Scherquist said. "I really feel like had I been a been a struggling learner of a different social class with a different skin color, I would not have been afforded the opportunities that came from intervention, that came from music lessons, like all those things that allowed me to learn as a learner and then to teach."
Upon getting priced out of Queens, he moved to Downers Grove, where he has a brother. His family joined him some months later, and they now live in Ravenswood. He came to Ariel after six years in leadership at Haines Elementary School in Chinatown, 247 W. 23rd Place.
Scherquist said around 80% of Ariel's staff is Black; with his experience in the South Bronx and Harlem, this is not the first time that he has led a predominantly African American school.
"I see it as, kids are kids, and they should be all given the same opportunity," he said. "I can see how some of it might be perceived a certain way in terms of privilege or 'white savior complex,' but I do understand. And I'm sensitive about coming into a community as a white school leader and making changes. So I do recognize and take care, at least to the extent I can."
He said there is work to be done around equity grading practices: less "punishing kids for not doing an assignment," "weaponing a grade book" and, "whether it's psychological or not, the perception of a child failing and their feelings of failure and how they work out of that when grading is not supposed to work out of that when grading is not supposed to be about failure and success. It's about measuring learning."
The focus instead should be on corrective instruction and putting systems in place to ensure success, which requires really getting to know students and understanding both their interests and how they learn. "Research shows that that traditional method of teaching, that often rote, teacher-centered, doesn't reach all kids," said Scherquist. "Some kids it does work for, but what we're doing is keeping certain children down and not allowing them to progress to their potential."
He said teachers are overall not trained to teach that way: no college course, he said, focuses strictly on grading; even lesson-planning is something done in passing.
What Scherquist has not done, in the months he's been at Ariel, is come in and dictate classroom policy changes. He has instead formed committees and voiced that he would like to take the school in this direction. More immediately, he is concerned with standards alignment and ensuring students understand why they are learning what they are learning. That, he said, helps with their motivation and confidence.
Ariel is not a neighborhood school — North Kenwood's are Jackie Robinson Elementary, 4225 S. Lake Park Ave., for kindergartners through 3rd graders and Woodson South Elementary School, 4414 S. Evans Ave., for pre-kindergartners through 8th graders. Ariel's selective enrollment focus is financial literacy; Ariel Investments founder John W. Rogers, Jr., helped establish the school in 1996.
Scherquist has created a financial literacy committee to infuse literacy concepts in all content areas, rather than offering a financial literacy class as an elective. Social studies might have a project around spending or business, and math may have a lesson around investments. Seventh and 8th grade will continue having a specific financial course.
Materially, Scherquist said Ariel's custodial staff is shorthanded but that the situation has improved since he started: the roof has been patched, and he likes his new engineer.
Scherquist is currently in a doctoral program at Illinois State University — online because of the COVID-19 pandemic — and should get his degree in two years. His Ariel contract lasts four years, and, with a doctorate, he said he may want to pursue a district leadership role after that.
"But I do love it here, and I do love what I do," he said. "It's a great place, and it's a great community. And I think this school could really soar. And I think there needs to be just some systems in place — and there are some systems in place that we need to just build upon."