LAKE FOREST – Few can remember an administrator being hired under more controversial circumstances than Dr. Chala Holland, Lake Forest High School’s newest principal who assumed the role on July 1. She agreed to an interview with Forest & Bluff magazine, but asked that we not revisit the conflict that surrounded her in the days leading up to her hiring—preferring to answer those questions one on one with parents. This interview unfolds as the question-and-answer exchange that actually took place.
Tell us a little about yourself. You’re from Philadelphia?
Yes, born and raised in Ardmore, near the western border of Philadelphia—very comparable to the North Shore—all of my family still lives there. Anyone who knows where Villanova is knows where I lived. My mom wanted me to have a Christian education and the experience of going to a private school known for its academic excellence. She knew the value of this type of experience and the doors it could open for me. A lot of sacrifices were made to make sure I received that experience. As an adult, I look back and think how parents will do whatever it takes to make sure their children are situated to receive the best.
What is the vision you have for your role as principal at Lake Forest High School?
I went to a high-performing school. I know that there are a lot of unnamed stressors that come along with that. There was some racial isolation where I went to school. But I have multiple identities beyond being black. I’m a woman. I grew up in a community where there were different ways of being, thinking, and acting than the school that I went to. In high-performing schools, there’s a tendancy to focus on academics, but there’s a responsibility to make sure children are living a healthy life both physically and emotionally.
Achievement is high here. But just think about if we address the needs of the whole child? What if we do a knock-out job in helping kids develop healthy habits in terms of the full scope of who they are. I really believe that every kid has a ‘next level.’ We all have a potential for growth and development. Part of my draw to Lake Forest High School is that this is what I know from my own educational experience. This isn’t a foreign space to me. I’m very attracted to the school’s focus on the holistic child—social-emotional learning. Part of the strategic plan—and I know we haven’t talked about this yet—the district’s commitment to equity in access, creating pathways for more students to be able to access more rigorous courses. This has been my entire life’s work in both of the districts I’ve worked at [Evanston Township High School and Oak Park River Forest High School].
“Equity in access.” There’s been some confusion around this. What exactly does this mean?
Sometimes there are institutional barriers in place that limit kids from moving through and having access to or being able to take higher level classes. Some of those are structural in how classes are set up, that if you start in one track, or one level, that’s where you stay. It’s all about where you start. The vision here is that if we truly believe in a growth mindset that intelligence is not fixed. Kids grow, and wherever you start shouldn’t necessarily determine where you end up. Part of the district’s goals have been to look at where there are structural barriers. Are there an absurd amount of pre-requisites? It may also be overcoming certain barriers we have in our minds where we limit the potential for kids where we say that something isn’t good for them without any rationale behind it. Part of equity in access is to see where kids are and see how we can help them grow, help them take a risk by taking a higher level class. It’s also about providing access with support. The keys to success shouldn’t be a secret. To me, equity in access is making sure that all of our kids have the opportunity to achieve their fullest potential.
So it’s not taking away anything?
It’s not taking away anything. Everyone has a next level. How can we accelerate [a student’s] growth based on [his or her] data? It’s pushing all kids to this next level with the appropriate tiers of support in place—everything from meeting classmates and teachers early to getting help with summer AP class homework. Support is comprehensive. My job is to help the district think about the complexity of needs and make sure that all of the voices involved are heard. We’re not going to make changes out of ignorance. It’s important for me to spend a lot of time learning.
So when you’re thinking about the next six months, next 12 months, what are your plans?
My goals are not to take away things. If anything, I want to enhance what’s already there. I’m super excited to be here. I’m looking forward to building relationships. I know that trust is earned and I understand the time that it takes. I’m excited for the year to get started. I’ve been meeting lots of students at different events. I love kids. It’s where I feel I’m at my best. And that’s all connected to my love for teaching and learning. I’ve been super-blessed to have been taught so much by my students. There’s no feeling like it.
There’s still the question … why Chala Holland?
Why not? Why not. I know who I am. I know the work that I’ve engaged in. I know my heart and that keeps me standing firm and strong. Unfortunately, a different narrative has been created that’s not mine.Based on everything that’s happened, my narrative has been suppressed. I went through the same hiring process as all of the other applicants. It’s no fun being the target of a single story or a single narrative. I’ve learned a lot from all of this. I want people to know that I’m here to serve this community and care for their kids. I hope people will take time to get to know my story.
This story originally appeared in the October 2015 edition of Forest & Bluff magazine