December Person of the Month: Sakina Pitts
Sakina Pitts became principal of Chancellor Avenue School in July, 13 years after she began working there. In Chancellor’s fourth year of partnering with Turnaround, evidence of the collaboration can be found throughout the school – rules and procedures, strong attachments between students and teachers, use of cooperative learning structures and a strong Student Support Team.
THE 180: You have quite a history with Chancellor Avenue School. Tell me about that.
SAKINA PITTS: I graduated from Chancellor in 1990 as an eight-grader. And then I went to Science High School, which was one of the top high schools in the Newark public school system.
THE 180: Did you always know you wanted to work in education?
SAKINA PITTS: I did not. After high school, I went to a four-year, historically black college, Morgan State, and then decided I was going to go to mortuary school.
It wasn’t until after the birth of my son that I started substitute teaching. In by 8:30, out by 2:55, and I still had the rest of the day. It gave me time to bond with my son. But…I fell in love with it.
My work ethic has always been stellar. Like, I’m just a workaholic. And my principal saw that. Every job they ever called me for, “Yeah, I can be there. Yeah, I can do it. Yeah, I can do that.” So when a long-term sub position came up, I took this fourth-grade class for the entire year. And I raised test scores without really knowing much about true teaching pedagogy. I was just creative. Like in the morning I would say, “We’re going to do a reader’s theatre. We’re going to take that story and we’re going to turn it into a play and I’m going to have the kids make hand puppets to go along with it.” I had 70-something percent of my students proficient in fourth grade. So my principal – I’ll never forget – he came dancing in my doorway and said, “Ms. Pitts, you’re going to take the Praxis exams (to earn your teaching certification) and I’m going to hire you.” He tapped me into education.
I was a fourth-grade literacy teacher for four years, then a literacy coach for four more years. And then later when a new administration came in, both my principal and vice principal asked, “How come you’re not a vice principal?” And I’m like, “I don’t know.” So one day I came back from lunch and they had the administrative praxis up on my laptop and were like, “Sit down and register now, please.”
Every job I’ve ever held in education has been all under one roof. It all happened here. This is my 13th year at Chancellor Avenue School.
THE 180: And over the summer you officially transitioned from Chief Innovation Officer (CIO) to Principal. How did your role change in this new position?
SAKINA PITTS: In renew schools in Newark, you have a principal, a CIO and then one or two vice principals. And the CIO role is actually in co-leadership with the principal. So to be honest, not much changed. I had a principal (Jose Fuentes) who really had a very close-knit administrative team and a close-knit leadership team. He made us a part of everything. He made it so that if anything happened to him, any one of us could run this school. That’s the way Chancellor’s leadership has always been and it’s the same way I’m coordinating my team. They are cc’d on everything. I don’t make decisions behind a closed door by myself; we almost do everything as a team. So yeah, I guess the overarching difference is just that I’m in a different space. And I have to put the final stamp of approval on certain things, but behind it all, my leadership team has helped with the planning process.
THE 180: One of the things that has made Turnaround’s partnership so successful is that you have been such a huge advocate of our work. What lead you to believe in us so strongly?
SAKINA PITTS: For me, seeing is believing. And I think a lot starts with mindset too. Turnaround has been just gracious, supportive and visible. When Renee (Capell) comes here, it’s like, “So, what do you want to do, Sakina? What is it that you envision?” And Joel (Scott) asks, “Okay, how do you want me to roll this out? What’s the key element that you want staff members to walk away with? Alright, so let’s fine tune that.” When you make it about the school, about the staff, about the children – that’s where the belief comes in. These people mean business and they’re here to help us.
THE 180: How have you seen Chancellor evolve through the partnership with Turnaround?
SAKINA PITTS: It was a change of mindset along with the professional development. Teachers building a toolkit to support students but also knowing what students are going through – all of that is so powerful. When we sat teachers down to think about Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), realizing they had two or three ACEs in their lives, made it easier to imagine what their children might be going though.
I’ve definitely seen a shift over the four years and, you know, the climate and culture just getting increasingly better. Don’t get me wrong. We have some things to work on. Children are not robots. Adults are not robots. You know, you have some ups and downs but just to keep the morale as high as possible.
THE 180: What do you think is the most essential thing students need to succeed?
SAKINA PITTS: In all honesty, and I swear this is not a catchphrase. I’ve learned through my trek in education, and especially from an administrative standpoint – no academics happen without social and emotional stability. It needs to come from the home and from the school. There needs to be a partnership, a collaboration, in supporting students.