York Alternative High School Principal Strives to Ensure the Success of Every Student
13 October 2023
One of Principal Sims' strengths as a leader is that she is always trying something new.
Principal Sharnette Sims often thinks about a student she had in the very early years of her career with CPS. She learned that this student had an overnight job to earn money for his family. He would leave this job in the suburbs at 4:00 a.m., sleep a few hours in a White Castle, and then take public transportation to go straight to school.
One day, she overheard a school administrator having an altercation with this student in the hallway. The student was trying to get one of his books to go to class, and the administrator was upset with him for being late. The altercation escalated, and the administrator told him not to return to the school without his mother. The student replied: “Well, I guess you’re kicking me out then because I haven’t seen my mom in three years.”
He left the building, and Principal Sims learned about a week later from other students that he had been shot and killed in the middle of the school day.
Even though this happened so many years ago, it still reminds Principal Sims that every student has a story that you may not fully know, and, thus, they deserve to be treated with empathy and respect.
“When this incident happened, my wheels started spinning because I knew that we had to find a better way to serve students who are dealing with a lot of complex adult issues while still being kids,” she said. “I started telling myself that there had to be more that I could do as an educator.”
She has worked at York Alternative High School, which specifically serves students detained at the Cook County Jail, since 2000 and has been principal for the past 12 years. Her teaching background is in special education, and this has shaped her perspective to believe that every student deserves as much support as they need.
“I’m always asking the question: ‘Why do we treat some services for diverse learners as things that students shouldn’t be getting anyway?’” she said. “From counseling to social work services to differentiated supports, our students should be getting that anyway. They deserve more, not less.”
While empathy and respect have guided every step of Principal Sims’ leadership journey, she explains that one of her strengths as a leader is that she is always trying something new. One of the first initiatives she implemented was expanding her students’ access to technology. When she started as principal, her building wasn’t even wired to provide internet access in the classrooms. Now, there are laptop carts in every classroom and a computer for every student.
Her next push was to create more flexible schedules for students so there would be multiple pathways for them to earn their high school diplomas. This eventually led to the school offering opportunities for students to take college-level courses, and Principal Sims notes that most of her graduates earned 16 college credits before graduating from York.
“My focus over the past few years has been to make supports more equitable for everyone—students and staff,” she said. “I don’t want my staff to always have to wait for me to support them. I distribute leadership so they can also use peer-led support. And, with our students, the pandemic pushed us to empower them to support each other and take agency and ownership of their own learning.”
The positive impact of Principal Sims’ efforts can be seen at York on any given day, but there is one day that is especially meaningful: graduation. York is comprised of multiple buildings, meaning that some students do not have opportunities to interact with each other. Graduation is the one day when all students come together to celebrate their success.
Students are able to invite guests to their graduation, typically their parents, leading to an overwhelming sense of pride and accomplishment throughout the entire ceremony. It always reminds Principal Sims that her decades of service to York have led to immensely powerful and promising results.
“Graduation is not exempt from some of the complex issues our students are dealing with—the fractured relationships, and the mistakes they have made in the past,” she said. “However, in that moment, we all feel so good. I feel good for my staff; I feel good for the parents; and, above all else, I feel good for the kids.”