North Cook Principal of the Year brings equity work, support to Oakton Elementary


Courtesy of Michael Allen

Principal Michael Allen. Allen was awarded the 2020 Elementary Principal of the Year award for the North Cook region by the Illinois Principals Association.

Jacob Fulton, Assistant City Editor

Before Michael Allen became a principal, he was just a concerned brother supporting his sibling through high school.

Halfway through Allen’s sophomore year at Valparaiso University, he said his brother was on the verge of dropping out of high school. His parents were struggling with drug abuse, and his brother was reading at a fourth-grade level. So Allen made a decision: he rushed home, packed his brother’s things and brought him to campus.

That year, he enrolled his brother in the local high school. At the age of 21, he said he had to advocate for his brother to teachers and administrators, who said the idea of college was an impossibility. However, Allen and his brother proved them wrong, as his brother went on to graduate from college and receive a master’s degree.

But it was that period during his sophomore year of college, when he was first trying to navigate the school system, when Allen said he realized he wanted to be a principal. He said he became aware that others may not have had the same support his brother did — and he wanted to change it.

“It was important to make sure that the system itself could have an infrastructure to really make education accessible to kids who come from non-traditional situations,” Allen said. “They have some complex needs, which was the case with my brother, so being able to have that experience lit a fire under me.”

That fire carried Allen to become the principal of Oakton Elementary School in Evanston/Skokie District 65. This year, he was named the 2020 Elementary Principal of the Year for the North Cook region by the Illinois Principals Association.

Now, Allen is in his second year as principal, and he is bringing the school closer together. The school saw a 55 percent decrease in discipline referrals and a 30 percent increase in staff attendance — which Allen said are both signs that he is achieving his goal of improving the school’s learning environment.

Jennifer Bergner, the school’s social worker, spends a lot of time with Allen working with students who have individualized needs. She said she’s worked at the school for six years, and Allen has uniquely understood the situation many students are in because of his life experiences.

Bergner said in the past two years, she’s seen Allen’s role in the Oakton community shift. She said staff members have felt less stressed overall, and she’s also watched children begin to see Allen as a person working to support them, instead of just a disciplinary administrator.

“His leadership has impacted how the adults in the building feel, which then impacts how the children feel,” Bergner said. “When the adults are supported, the children feel supported.”

One of the ways he tried to improve Oakton is the creation of a system in which students are rewarded for meeting behavioral expectations.

The system previously utilized a token economy, he said, which rewarded students with items in exchange for earning “Cougar Points” for good behavior. Recently, however, his staff has transitioned to a focus on experiences over items, in which teachers mentor and spend time with students. He said the staff also re-evaluated the grounds on which points were awarded, shifting the reasoning toward character development over simple rule-following.

Allen said he wants the school to create a highly-functioning support system for students from disadvantaged backgrounds and difficult family situations. Oakton Elementary has historically been one of the lowest-performing elementary schools in District 65; during the 2018-2019 school year, it was tied for last place in college readiness for English, and it came in second-to-last in college readiness for math according to district reports.

Andalib Khelghati, District 65’s assistant superintendent of schools, was part of the hiring committee that originally selected Allen. He was also Allen’s direct supervisor in his first year as principal.

Khelghati said Allen has set the bar high for future administrators within the district, raising the standard for the way principals interact with their students and staff.

“The award proved Dr. Allen’s vision and commitment to equity,” Khelghati said. “He really helped put the school and its programs in a place where it can get the support it needs, so the award is in recognition of his perseverance.”

But in Allen’s eyes, the award doesn’t just belong to him. Instead, he said it proves that his entire staff is on the right track.

“When I think about the quality of care, we have our custodians, our lunchroom workers, our secretaries — every level of level of our school has been invested in the new tasks we’ve been working on,” Allen said. “It’s encouraging and inspiring to see some glimmers of hope.”

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @jacobnfulton1

Related stories:

Everything Evanston: Willard Elementary School music teacher develops music festival

District 65 revamps annual Achievement and Accountability report

Future District 65 superintendent dedicates life to educating children