“He talks to me more in English now,” says Cai Mei Fang, in Cantonese. “When he came to school, he spoke to me in Chinese at home.” That change took place because her kindergarten son, Bellson Mei, is in his second year at John C. Haines Elementary School, where a vibrantly multilingual campus makes learning English and speaking his native language entirely compatible.
While Haines, a pre-K to 8 school in Chicago’s Chinatown neighborhood, has long offered bilingual education for its English language learners (ELLs), it’s now exploring new ways to expand access to multilingual instruction to all of its children, recognizing that honoring student identity can foster a school culture where kids like Bellson feel seen, engaged, and ready to learn.
But language identity, as empowering as that is in a school where one-third of kids are classified as English language learners, is just one way that Haines Elementary develops a sense of belonging and safety. Many of the school’s practices start by assuming that even young kids have a good idea about how they learn best: Students participate in creating every classroom’s code of conduct—a strategy that promotes self-awareness and a sense of responsibility toward others. In one class, a teacher encourages kids to contribute to improving the culture by acknowledging and celebrating moments of kindness in the school community. “You are kind—你真好,” a sign in the stairwell reminds them.
The school’s holistic approach doesn’t just build the students’ confidence and comfort—it also supports their academic abilities. Haines is one of the highest-performing public schools in Illinois, and Chicago Magazine just named it Chicago’s fifth-best public elementary school and the city’s best neighborhood elementary school.
Those impressive credentials raise an interesting question about public education: What if the best academic programs involve broadening—not narrowing—a school’s model to focus on students’ well-being and engagement?
Enrollment665 | Public, Urban
Per Pupil Expenditures
Free / Reduced Lunch92%
Haines Elementary lies just west of bustling Wentworth Avenue, a sturdy strip of restaurants, bakeries, and gift shops at the core of Chicago’s Chinatown, one of the country’s most dynamic and enduring urban Chinatowns.
The community’s multilingualism and multiculturalism permeate the campus. Every morning, kids chatter in Cantonese and check on the silver dollar fish in the school’s aquarium until the loudspeaker interrupts, signaling the start of the academic day with the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem in English. Everywhere signs are translated into Chinese characters. Stone panels in the lobby are engraved with Chinese characters explaining the value of education, and walls are covered with murals depicting cultural themes from all over the world.
The school also makes students’ languages and cultures central to its academic instruction. Many teachers select books, and build units, that relate to students’ languages and cultures. “I make it personal, about them, and then their interest is piqued because then they’re always doing that comparison with their lives,” says seventh-grade English language arts teacher Rebecca Grober, who has built an annual unit around poetry with a focus on haiku.
Last spring, the school piloted a new language program that is bridging its different linguistic communities—native Cantonese- or Mandarin-speaking students from some of its bilingual classrooms began swapping teachers several times a week with their English-speaking peers from Haines’s mainstream, English-only classrooms. Sessions lasted about a half hour, and gave students who are comfortable in English or Chinese a small taste of exposure to another, less-familiar language.
Administrators are trying to determine whether they can find enough licensed teachers who are fluent speakers of Cantonese and Mandarin to expand the program. If they can, leaders say they might consider building a full dual-language immersion model at Haines, one in which native English speakers and native Chinese speakers would learn together in both languages throughout the school day.
A Social Contract
Discipline at Haines isn’t a one-way street. At the start of each school year, students and teachers engage in a spirited discussion about the ideal learning environment and the various rules and norms they’ll need for the class to work that way. When consensus emerges, the teacher records the rules on a poster that everyone signs—students and teachers alike—forming a public-facing social contract that governs behavior and discipline throughout the year.
“It’s a very reflective process,” says eighth-grade teacher Cristina Sicora. “Students are reflecting on the year prior and then bringing their background knowledge to the classroom.... They’re making the call as to what it is they want to see and how they want to treat each other.”
The social contracts empower kids by emphasizing that they are curious and want to learn and that they understand the value of structures that make learning possible.
Each classroom’s contract is different—especially at different grade levels—but all reflect common themes. Sicora’s students drafted a series of promises. “We will be: respectful, supportive, fair, kind, encouraging, patient, honest,” the contract states. As teams of students present environmental research projects one afternoon, these promises are clearly taken seriously. The class listens to each team patiently, and then members of the audience take turns providing feedback—asking questions, sharing compliments, and explaining new pieces of information they learned from the presenters.
It’s afternoon meditation time in Jennifer Perthel’s fourth-grade classroom at Haines. Just a few sun rays brighten the back of the darkened room, and children breathe deeply, ruminating on patience. Even though students have just come in from recess, their wiggles steadily melt into silence.
“It’s like taking a nap, except you’re awake,” says Emwanmwosa Osazuwa, a tall, smiling girl in a green Haines T-shirt, of the 10 minutes of meditation her class gets each day. “I usually come back from recess with a headache, but then I meditate and it’s gone.”
Meditation is emblematic of the school’s larger focus on weaving together social, emotional, and academic development into a school climate that supports all children.
Educators and policy makers have argued for years over the value of academic assessments to identify areas of weakness and drive student improvement, and many schools have narrowed their curricula to cover only what they believe will be tested. But Haines offers an effective, alternative path, one in which learning isn’t reduced to rote drills and test prep worksheets. By engaging students’ identities and giving them a voice in shaping their classrooms, Haines prepares students to succeed academically and to think about how their actions can shape their broader community.
“Think of school ratings. What is that about? It’s about how you do on test scores,” says Haines principal Catherine Amy Moy Davis. “I think what we fail to realize is what’s going on outside and inside of the academics. That’s why we talk about the SEL.... It’s not separate. It’s happening here in the school. It’s happening in the world.”