by Elizabeth Vazquez
The first time the current student body at the Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts) heard of Terri Milsap, very few knew anything about her. In the letter sent out announcing the abrupt and immediate transition of principals on November 6 by Executive Director Jose Ochoa, a brief biography covered her professional experience, which has taken her from the east coast to Chicago.
One thing stood out: She is not a new principal. Milsap is the founding principal of ChiArts, and worked here for five years before moving into other parts of the educational sphere. She’s held the title of regional superintendent, executive director, independent consultant, and principal turnaround coach, where she said she learned about what it means to be a “a transformational leader who values fostering trusting relationships, motivating students to excel, and building strong teams.”
The core values that she has instilled in the school upon its founding — integrity, community, balance, humility, and creativity — have not changed.
Students have been hearing a lot from their teachers about Milsap’s prowess and her consistency with her vision for ChiArts. In her own words, ChiArts was meant to be a “school where scholar artists feel safe, supported, and prepared to pursue their goals” in an environment that holds these values close.
She said she intends to adhere to that vision, saying that she “will make changes and decisions that are aligned with the mission … and core values of ChiArts.” She said she aims to deliver on the promise to give students a pre-professional arts education and a strong academic curriculum.
When asked what she would say if she could speak with her past self, Milsap said she would want more direct connection to the classrooms and subsequently the teachers. She also would have told herself to focus on teacher retainment more to ensure consistency in education for the students — something many ChiArts students are concerned about.
As of this publication, the academic teacher turnover from last year stands at seven, and students are still feeling the aftershocks. The senior class is currently still lacking a financial statistics teacher after three substitutes. There are also student concerns because there has not been a permanent science teacher since mid-November.
While many are curious about the possibility changes at ChiArts, Milsap said that she and the administration as a whole have much more observation to do before she can come up with any restructuring plans. Most questions covered in the senior question-and-answer meeting on December 3, ranging from a teacher shortage to general school culture and student happiness, were met with the reminder that Milsap still has to re-acclimate before she can make concrete decisions.
The first changes have already taken root, though. These include the closing of the third floor during lunch hours, stricter conservatory breaks, and the future reinstatement of an appropriate dress code. Milsap wants it to be clear that her priorities are student safety, instructional leadership, and school culture. Any upcoming changes are going to be in line with that thought process, said Milsap, and should be neither shocking nor extreme.
Milsap also said that some change is necessary to foster a structured learning environment for students. In the question-and-answer meeting with senior students, Milsap had students repeat the phrase “change is good” once she had finished her introduction.
Milsap is also a firm believer in advocacy for her students. She said she understands the “importance of meeting students where they are emotionally, academically, and artistically while setting expectations for excellence,” and wants to foster avenues for student feedback for new policies.
Milsap said that students will be able to speak with her directly, or pass thoughts and comments through the student government. There is also the possibility of a student-run advisory committee to voice the students concerns.
During the senior assembly, she also mentioned that she is adamant on her open door policy, and urged that if students want to meet with her about their issues (or just to say hello), her door would always remain open, — literally. She welcomes walk-ins and emailed queries as well. Milsap can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.