CATEGORY: Teachers and Leaders

Melissa Jan 11, 2024

It’s the second week of school, and a brutal heat wave is battering Hartford and the entire East Coast. At around 9 AM, first-year principal Sueleidy Cruz gets a visit from a sweat-drenched teacher to share that the central air conditioning system is not correctly circulating in one wing of the building, creating sauna-like conditions for several classrooms. Immediately, she jumps into action, working with her leadership team on the logistics to move students to cooler parts of the building. The problem is solved in a matter of minutes. This is a typical Tuesday for Ms. Cruz. Not the imperfect AC part - the quickly solving problems part. A typical first-year principal is usually not an effective problem-solver, but Ms. Cruz is not your typical first-year principal. For one thing, 2023 marks Ms. Cruz’s 16th year at AF. That makes her one of the longest-tenured employees across the entire network. Her entire career has been in AF Hartford, starting as an elementary teacher before becoming an academic dean at Achievement First Hartford Elementary School. To say she knows the ins and outs of the building would be an understatement. The first group of early elementary students she taught had just graduated from high school. One of the first hires she made as a principal was an AF Hartford High School alumni. The other thing that makes Ms. Cruz special is that Hartford is where she was born and raised. She thinks of her school as home and approaches all her decisions with the question, “How would I take care of home?” With that frame, it’s natural that if the AC in your home breaks and your family is hot, you spring into action. As a first-year principal, Ms. Cruz sees her role as taking the baton and continuing key initiatives implemented under her predecessor, especially concerning the student experience. Her biggest priority is maintaining a strong student culture. She says the most significant change in AF from when she started in 2008 is how student-centered the model has become. Or, as she says, “AF Hartford has evolved from a place that centered academic excellence above all else to an environment that leads with the question: “Do students feel seen, loved, and heard?” Of course, there doesn’t have to be tension between acknowledging the holistic needs of students and creating a rigorous learning environment. Ms. Cruz believes you can do both. One of the other significant changes she has seen over the past 16 years is the transition to a more evidence-based curriculum. She is particularly excited about the new literacy curricula - Wit and Wisdom and Geodes. As a school leader, she knows she is the instructional leader of the building. When asked what unique attributes she brings as a leader, she eschews her typical modesty and asserts her strength in academic instruction. With five years under her belt as an academic dean, it’s no wonder she feels confident that she can create a culture of excellence that instills a love of learning in her students. Finally, Ms. Cruz is proud of her school’s success in retaining teachers, which she describes as a hallmark of her school and a source of great pride. She is very intentional about maintaining strong morale. There’s the easy stuff that comes second nature to her, like affirming the value of teachers with weekly shoutouts or ensuring teacher input is part of every significant school decision. There are wellness initiatives like Sustainability Fridays, where teachers can start their weekends early. But the real secret is providing constant, ongoing support to teachers. That means being in classrooms every day. That means being in the thick of things and helping solve teacher’s problems, everything from preparing a particular lesson to removing students from a hot and humid classroom quickly. After 16 years, Ms. Cruz still has the same boundless energy and optimistic outlook as a first-year teacher. She treats her school community like family because Hartford isn’t just the place where she works. It’s the place where she was born and the place that molded her into the inspiring leader she has become. To see more about AF Hartford Academy Elementary School, check out their Instagram page.

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