Story 17 of 20: It Takes Commitment by Principal Maurice Swinney

For story #17 in our series of 20 stories celebrating 20 years of Umoja, we asked Maurice Swinney, Principal of Tilden Career Community Academy, to reflect on Umoja's commitment to Tilden students and staff over the last six years.

One of Umoja’s longtime school partners is Tilden Career Community Academy, located on the south side of Chicago. Tilden stands within three high school networks and serves a population of students from a whopping 31 feeder schools throughout the city. Over a third (40%) of Tilden students require IEPs (Individualized Education Plans), and, according to Tilden's Principal Maurice Swinney, nearly 90% are "high-risk and vulnerable." For Principal Swinney, those numbers are a lot to digest, process, and work with on a day-to-day basis. “We have to think about school differently from a traditional high school. We have to provide more wrap-around services in situations like this, more academic supports in situations like this, more attention in situations like this. Students need us to be in loco parentis more often than not.” One critical resource for Swinney and his entire team at Tilden remains: Umoja. “It’s critical that Umoja is still here. Umoja has a legacy partnership with us. Umoja is a part of the Tilden family.”


Swinney moved to Chicago from Louisiana in 2012 to work at Tilden. Shortly after he started as Principal, he identified a need for Social Emotional supports in the school and immediately began meeting with organizations. “I sat in a meeting with Joyce Debrah-Sheppard and Ted Christians from Umoja and Ellen Kennedy, who was my Assistant Principal at the time, and we talked about what was available to schools. There was something about the conversation that I thought ‘Okay, maybe they (Umoja) actually really want to help people.’”


Swinney recalls that it was in that conversation where he heard Umoja’s belief in the postsecondary work, belief in the restorative justice work, and belief in the student advocacy work. It was academic, postsecondary, and social-behavioral and it gave him a holistic partnership that the Tilden community could have with an organization. 


 Over the last 6 years, Umoja and Tilden have partnered in a multitude of ways. From Advisory to full SEL and RJ inclusion, Tilden embodies Umoja’s commitment to cultivate, strengthen, and sustain purposeful relationships. “I am amazed by the commitment that Umoja has continued to make to Tilden in spite of not having the funds to do it--which ultimately goes back to what I saw in the beginning. Umoja really wants to help students be successful because they are operating from a moral compass, not by an economic one. It was and remains the hands-on, boots-on-the-ground involvement in the school. It takes a hands-on commitment to effectively help a child. Umoja was a part of our meetings, part of our Care Team, a part of the student development team--I mean, just a real immersion.”


Tilden is home to one of Umoja’s eight Peace Rooms in Chicago. Swinney describes the Peace Room as “the intermediary for small disagreements, not allowing them to become larger disagreements. It has become a space for peace and tranquility for some students. I feel like our kids are learning how to effectively voice their needs. They are not waiting for somebody to approach them with what their needs might be, but to come in and say ‘this is what I need from you.’ I think that ability to step in and have a conversation is phenomenal.”


And for the school’s post-secondary needs? Swinney and his team at Tilden still call on the Umoja staff and the curriculum they created, indirectly or directly, for their postsecondary work. He shared that it has helped his staff, as adults, learn how to ask the right questions so they can get better information to support students and also recognize how they can change some of their adult behaviors in order to help students. “It’s part of that commitment,” he shares. 


“Umoja has a clear sense of investment and commitment to situations that are not so ‘pretty’ in the beginning. Whatever that is that keeps people motivated to do that, you can see it comes out in the way things are designed, it comes out in the way that Umoja has worked with staff to build the staff’s capacity, it comes out in the way that Umoja engages adults, and Umoja has found a very good way of asking adults the right questions so that they can reflect and change some patterns of behavior when necessary. There is a quest to know more before there is a judgment rendered. That quest to know more actually erases the judgment and replaces it with empathy, support, and high expectations. That quest makes a world of difference.”


Top photo: Swinney (middle) with then Tilden AP, Ellen Kennedy and Umoja CEO, Ted Christians

Lower photo: Swinney (2nd from left) and members of the Tilden staff with former Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan.