Take Five with Stephanie Anderson, Principal of Vaughn Occupational High School
20 October 2023
Principal Anderson's personal story is a celebration of both Principal Appreciation Month and Disability Employment Awareness Month.
Take Five is a series that highlights some of the many members of the CPS community who are going above and beyond for our schools. If you know someone who is making a difference, nominate them to be featured here.
This week, we’re pleased to introduce you to Stephanie Anderson, whose personal story is a unique celebration of both Principal Appreciation Month and Disability Employment Awareness Month.
Stephanie joined the team at Vaughn Occupational High School in 2016 as the assistant principal, and is now in her third year as principal. Vaughn serves students with significant intellectual disabilities, first during their four years of high school and then through a transition program that provides support to students through the year they turn 22.
Stephanie brings a unique perspective to this work, as she herself is living with a physical disability. Around age nine, she was diagnosed with a condition known as Stargardt disease, which typically results in a person losing most or all of their central vision. Her experience with vision loss is what led Stephanie down a career path to special education, and eventually to the students at Vaughn.
What made you pursue a career in special education?
My experience as a student with a disability wasn’t always great. My challenges weren’t even as significant as what a lot of my current students face, and still, I struggled to make positive connections and feel a sense of belonging at school. I went into special education to try and give students a better experience than the one I had, and to support kids who were made to feel less than because of their disabilities.
Growing up, what was most challenging about your experience as a student with a disability?
As my vision declined, I needed more and more accommodations, and they weren’t very consistent. Teachers would often forget to have materials prepared the way I needed them, so they would tell me just to sit and listen rather than participate in the lesson or exam like my peers. This would make me feel isolated, which I think is something that a lot of students with disabilities face in general. But that should never be the case in their classrooms.
How has your experience living with a disability impacted your work?
I have a unique understanding of what students with disabilities go through on a daily basis. It’s not hypothetical for me. It’s my reality too, which means that I’m able to talk to them authentically about how they’re feeling, what they’re experiencing, and what can be done to make things better.
In your experience, what is the greatest challenge for a student with a disability?
It’s often not the disability at all, but the way the student is perceived, even within their own community. A lot of our students at Vaughn have grown up being told that they “can’t” do a lot of things. But there’s also plenty they “can” do, and I want them focused on that. I grew up in an environment where the expectations for me were high. Now, I want to be the person who sets those high expectations for my students, regardless of their challenges.
What are your goals for your students at Vaughn?
My goal is that every one of our students reach their full potential. For some, that means college. For others, it’s finding a job that interests them and where they can use their skills. And for some students, success will be the smooth transition to a day program, or identifying areas where they can work as volunteers. Whatever their individual goals and abilities, I want to help our students at Vaughn go as far as they can go.