By Terry Dean
Cynthia Ashford-Hollis and her husband were looking for a new community to live in, one with a good school district for their kids.
The Chicagoans considered Oak Park and its elementary school District 97. They moved to the village in 2006 and looked at some of the smaller schools in the district. It came down to a choice between Beye and Hatch schools.
Their neighbor said they should visit Hatch School on the northeast side of the village and meet with its principal, Sheila Carter.
"There's this short strong woman that you have to meet," Ashford-Hollis recalled the neighbor saying.
After meeting Carter, both knew that Hatch was the place for their two kids.
"I was so impressed. She knows every parent's and every child's name every year," Ashford-Hollis said.
Carter, who has been Hatch's principal for 16 years, even knew their names before they got the chance to introduce themselves.
Learning the names of the students and the parents, Carter said, is part of her job.
On Monday, as another school year kicked off in D97, Principal Carter was out in the hallways and on the playgrounds greeting new and old families. But this was the last first day for Carter, who will be retiring next June after 38 years in the district. The longest-serving principal, currently, in the district, Carter has spent her entire career in Oak Park, first as a teacher, then assistant principal, then principal.
After 30-plus years as an educator, Carter, 59, decided it's time to retire.
But the bubbly, positive energy that so impressed Ashford-Hollis wasn't learned over time. Carter was born with it.
The former high school cheerleader and South Side Chicago native said she's always been that way and infused her personality into her job as an educator. She handles conflicts at her school with positive, not negative, reinforcement. That's true for disciplining students too.
Carter said she doesn't like the punitive approach in general. Except for very serious infractions, she doesn't believe in suspending kids or giving detentions. Instead, she'll talk to students and give them something constructive to do.
"I don't like detentions and I don't like suspensions," she said. "In some cases, I have no choice. If there's a weapon in the school, I'm going to follow protocol. But if I have two children who get into an argument or a fight … I like to bring both children in so we can talk this through because if one child hit the other and that child didn't hit back, I first thank that child for not hitting back because it really takes two to fight.
"The goal," she added, "is to change the behavior. Apologies are in order because usually they've calmed down by the time they get to me and they want to make peace.
But then she says enthusiastically, "What are you going to do for me? What kind of consequence would you like?"
Apparently that approach works. Some consequences include working in the school cafeteria as ambassadors for the school's zero-waste food recycling program.
Since her time as principal, Carter has averaged maybe one suspension a school year, if that, she says.
The school also has a dress code, which she has her staff strictly enforce — no shorty-shorts for girls or sloppy pants for boys.
Carter began teaching in D97 in 1977. She actually had two job offers at the time, one from Chicago Public Schools, the other from Oak Park. Though she interviewed for kindergarten, she ended up teaching second-graders, spending two years at Lincoln. She was hired by then-principal Dan Franco, whom Carter says became a father figure to her.
"I didn't know anything about Oak Park. I was from Chicago, so I didn't know," she said. "I didn't have a car so my dad takes me to the interview. I sit in the office and I was just so lucky. I interviewed for a kindergarten position and I knew good and well I wasn't going to get it because I did my student-teaching in first grade and I felt I just wasn't qualified to be a really good kindergarten teacher."
The second-grade position opened up after another teacher moved over to a third-grade class, Carter recalled.
"I signed my contract in June of '77 and it was just amazing to me," she said.
Back then, D97 teachers received tenure after two years on the job, Carter recalled.
She moved over to Whittier, becoming one of the first black teachers hired there. Again it was Franco who elevated Carter and two other black teachers to their positions.
"At the time I remember it being 18 percent minority students in the district and they wanted the teaching staff to reflect that," Carter said. "There were no African-American teachers at Whittier and they put two of us there. I spent 14 years at Whittier and I absolutely loved it. I loved Lincoln too."
After 14 years teaching second-through-fourth-graders at Whittier, Carter was appointed assistant principal at Lincoln. Five years later, she became the Hatch principal.
Ashford-Hollis, who is a Cook County assistant state's attorney, said she and other parents will miss Carter.
"I didn't know her as a teacher in the classroom, but I know her as a teacher of the teachers, guiding them and the school in the achievements they've made," she said.
Carter was raised in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood on the West Side. Her family moved in her junior year to the South Side, where she attended Harrison High School. She was pretty much involved in "everything," including the cheerleading squad and student government.
Since childhood, she wanted to be a teacher because she was good at organizing and liked working with younger children.
After retiring in June, Carter plans to spend more time at her family's gymnastic center in Naperville. She and her husband started the business, Naperville Gymnastics Club, in 1992 and recently expanded their space to serve more youth. Carter handles the business side while her husband oversees the training.
The oldest of five children born to Marshall and Essie Butler, Carter says she was the typical take-charge big sister. Her father, who worked as a post office supervisor, still lives on the South Side. Her mom died in May of this year. Carter said many of the teachers, staff and some parents attended the funeral.
Last year, the school's PTO dedicated and named its outdoor playground after Carter.
"We wanted to do something while she was still here that she could see and appreciate," Ashford-Hollis said.