Dr. Michael Allen, principal of Oakton School. (Photo by Adina Keeling)

In his sophomore year at Valparaiso University, Michael Allen thrived. He played on the football team, performed well in his classes, and loved being a college student. 

One evening, Mr. Allen called his younger brother, Gilbert Allen, to brag about his success in school. During that call, he learned his brother was failing his classes and on the brink of dropping out of high school. Rather than let his brother fall through the cracks, Mr. Allen drove home, picked him up, and moved him into his college apartment. Here, he enrolled Gilbert Allen in a local high school and tutored him in his spare time. 

Gilbert and Michael Allen’s parents battled drug addiction and extreme poverty, but despite being raised by the same parents, the brothers experienced a very different adolescence. Teachers praised Michael Allen for his academic success, but they did not see the same potential in his brother, who read at a fourth-grade level in 10th grade, said Dr. Allen. When he met with his brother’s teachers, they told him Gilbert would be lucky to finish high school with his academic performance. 

“But he had desires, and he had goals, and he had dreams just like any human being does,” said Dr. Allen. He said he became his brother’s advocate and fought to help him realize his own potential. 

Being a young Black child and struggling with traditional academic subject areas like literacy, math, and communication, is really tough, said Dr. Allen. He said for a lot of boys of color, if they are not successful in school by third grade, the likelihood they will go down the wrong path increases significantly. Dr. Allen said the education system is not designed to help students like Gilbert Allen, who face societal barriers like racism, trauma, and depression. 

With his brother’s support, Gilbert Allen went on to graduate high school and later earned a master’s degree in social work. He is now employed as a social work supervisor and is working on a doctorate in counseling, community care, and trauma. 

After seeing his brother’s transformation, Mr. Allen decided to become a school principal. “I saw principal as being the gatekeeper to people’s future,” he said. He became an educator 15 years ago and received a doctorate in education leadership. At 24, he became a middle school principal, and in 2020, he earned the title Elementary School Principal of the Year for the North Cook region by Illinois Principals for his work at Oakton Elementary School.

Teaching Acceptance and Forming Diverse Relationships 

As principal at Oakton Elementary School, Dr. Allen works to make sure his students know that they are loved, have the opportunity to make mistakes, are challenged intellectually, and learn how to connect with students who are different from them, he said. Understanding the value of forming relationships with students of different races, cultures, gender identities, and sexual orientations is especially important in elementary school, said Dr. Allen. For example, white students who are academically gifted but do not have direct relationships with students of color will struggle to create those relationships when they go to college, said Dr. Allen. 

Dr. Allen said elementary school is the foundation of an adult’s life. The comments and messages that adults struggle with were seeds first planted in their head in elementary school, he said. When he was in elementary school, Dr. Allen said, his mother was his champion and the affirming, comforting, and loving words she spoke to him as a child are like recordings he plays over and over in his head as an adult. He attributes his success to his mother’s words and wisdom, and he said as a principal, he wants to make sure students hear those same messages.  

The most revolutionary act society can make is to see humanity in all people and love them unconditionally, said Dr. Allen, who sees that institutions and structures built on white supremacy and systematic racism benefit no one. 

In the context of elementary school, people of color are vastly underrepresented in the books students are expected to read, and increasing the representation of these communities is a win-win, he said. Students of color are left feeling affirmed and empowered when they see their communities represented, said Dr. Allen. It is also important for white students to see and read stories about their Black and Latinx peers, told in their voices, in the context of their communities, said Dr. Allen.

Becoming an Author

In 2020, Dr. Allen and his brother published the middle-grade book, “Brotherly Love.” The book, which they wrote together, tells their story while addressing subjects like hope, vulnerability, and mental health. “Brotherly Love” also displays the importance of having effective mentors. Mentors can slow down time and make the world feel smaller, said Dr. Allen. 

In addition, “Brotherly Love” addresses systematic racism. Dr. Allen said acknowledging systematic racism, understanding how it works, and then learning how to move forward in a way that is equitable and rooted in wellness is the key to taking control of one’s humanity. 

Dr. Allen said the book is concise so that it is accessible to as many people as possible, regardless of their age or the amount of free time they can dedicate to reading. The book was written for everyone, he said, but especially those who grew up feeling neglected as a result of their race, gender identity, or sexual orientation. The brothers also wrote the book for themselves. “The book is our love letter to our younger selves,” said Dr. Allen. 

Learning from Failure 

Despite his success, Dr. Allen said at the start of his career, he failed miserably. During that time as a middle-school principal he believed students making poor choices, such as taking drugs and joining gangs, should be expelled.

Dr. Allen said he remembers a school board meeting at which he and other school administrators discussed the expulsion of a student. The student’s grandmother, an older Latina woman, attended the meeting and spoke up in Spanish. Dr. Allen said he could hear the pain in her voice, despite not understanding her words. Translated into English, she repeated over and over: “What’s in it for him? What will happen to him? What is he supposed to do?”

On the drive home, Dr. Allen said, he could not stop thinking about the woman’s words. “It was much like the grief and agony and pain that you hear at funerals,” he said. Dr. Allen became a principal in order to support and empower kids, but on that ride home, he said he realized he had lost his way. He was inadvertently supporting the structures he wanted to tear down – structures like white supremacy and institutionalized racism that give privilege to some at the expense of others. Dr. Allen said he began to rethink his role as principal.

The following school year, Dr. Allen did not expel any students. He and the other administrators worked to support older students, including placing them in the correct grades, helping them find summer jobs, and keeping them engaged on weekends. Dr. Allen learned that being a principal meant being a good listener and having conversations with students rather than administering harsh punishments that would impact them for the rest of their lives, he said.

“We believe that behavior is just information; it doesn’t define who the person is,” said Dr. Allen. Since he joined the Oakton administration in 2018, the school has undergone many changes. According to the Illinois Report Card, between 2018 and 2020, the school experienced a 21.4% decrease in chronic absenteeism, defined as the percentage of students who miss 10% percent or more of school days. The Report Card also shows that the number of chronically truant students, those who miss 5% or more of school days per year without a valid excuse, decreased by 38% during the same time frame. There was also an increase of 50 points, or a 91% increase, in teacher-to-principal trust, according to the 5Essentials Survey.

“We focus on collectivism,” said Dr. Allen. “We focus on things like empathy, compassion, character development, and that’s what makes our school thrive.” 

Adina Keeling

Adina Keeling is a photojournalist and reporter, covering city news, sustainability, schools, and art. She also investigates mental health systems and environmental injustices in Evanston, and puts together...

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