The principal of Lincoln Elementary, 1111 S. Grove Ave., resigned on Thursday, sending members of the school community into a frenzy and prompting District 97 administrators to devise a comprehensive support plan for students and staff at the school.

On Wednesday, D97 Supt. Carol Kelley notified Lincoln families that Laura Zaniolo, the school’s principal since July 2019, announced her resignation “due to personal reasons. Her resignation took effect Jan. 30.

Lincoln has had two permanent principals and one interim principal since 2017, when the D97 school board accepted longtime principal Cathy Hamilton’s retirement over the vocal opposition of some Lincoln faculty members and parents who wanted the board to allow Hamilton to serve an additional three years in the role. Hamilton had requested the extension after a change in the state’s early retirement option program affected her ability to collect her full pension. She was eventually moved to an administration role in the district.

Lisa Bucciarelli-Carlos replaced Hamilton in July 2017, but resigned the following year to be a principal in another district. Theresa Silva was hired as interim principal in August 2018 before she was replaced by Zaniolo roughly a year later. The D97 school board is scheduled to formally accept Zaniolo’s resignation at a meeting on Feb. 4.

In her letter to families, Kelley acknowledged that Zaniolo’s resignation was “unexpected,” but urged community members to “respect her privacy. We wish her nothing but the best moving forward.”

Kelley said that, as part of a comprehensive support plan, she’ll recommend that the school board allow Hamilton and Sheila Carter, another former D97 administrator to stay on through the end of the school year to support Assistant Principal Paula Hughes. Both have been serving as interim assistant principals since November.

The plan also calls for additional support from Meghan Stewart, a teacher-mentor, and Maggie Cahill, the school’s elementary climate and culture coach. Amanda Siegfried, the district’s communications director, will “be working with building leadership and staff to maintain consistent communication with families throughout the school year.”

And the Lincoln PTO and Oak Park E-Team will facilitate restorative circles for Lincoln staffers and families. The two organizations are planning a “Come Together” event that will be held inside of the cafeteria at Lincoln on Monday, Feb. 3, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m.,

“We fully support this initiative and will collaborate with the leadership team, PTO and community partners going forward to plan additional events,” Kelley said in the letter.

Kelley added that her administrative team will conduct “a thorough and transparent review of our hiring practices before making any decisions regarding the 2020-21 school year.”

As part of that process, she said, the district will host a town hall meeting with students, staff and families on Feb. 19, 7 p.m. to 9 p.m., at Lincoln, “to give the community the opportunity to share thoughts and perspectives that will help us reflect as an organization and plan our next steps.”

During an interview on Jan. 31, Kelley said that Reesheda Graham-Washington, the owner of Live Café in Oak Park and an equity consultant, has agreed to work with the district “from a critical, objective lens” during a comprehensive review of its “hiring, on-boarding and induction processes for new principals.”

“It’s important for me to take a pause, listen and have someone else the community trusts to do that listening,” Kelley said, adding that she plans on learning from the information received “before making any decisions moving forward.”

Kelley and other administrations acknowledged that Zaniolo’s resignation has prompted concerns and frustrations among the Lincoln community. In a letter sent to families on Jan. 31, Kelley said that her administration shares in the community’s “disappointment and frustration.”

During the interview, Kelley said that she and members of her administrative team have been on-site at Lincoln since the day that Zaniolo announced her resignation and that she’s listened to community feedback in the wake of the resignation.

“Parents have questions and they’re seeking stability for the school,” said Siegfried.

“Our number one priority is for students and staff that come to Lincoln every day,” Kelley said, before addressing the principal turnover directly.

“While these two events [the resignation of two permanent principals since 2017] have happened here, I don’t believe that they’re a reflection of the school,” Kelley said.

“I don’t want families or students to feel that there’s something wrong with them and that we can’t keep a principal here,” she said. “I really want us all to look at this with a learning lens. How can we better understand what happened and how can we capture that lesson and use it to improve moving forward?”

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