Q&A: Clarke Streets' Yolanda Tooks has lived her students' story

February 02, 2016

Yolanda Tooks is the new Assistant Principal at Clarke Street School, a neighborhood MPS school complimented by a cadre of community partners working collaboratively to positively impact students. An MPS graduate, Yolanda has dedicated her career to serving Milwaukee’s children.

We recently checked in with Yolanda to learn more about her story and how STCM is supporting her work at Clarke Street:


Q: What is your background? How did you get to where you are today?

A: I grew up involved in programs like Head Start. My teachers really built in me a love of school that has stuck with me, and brought me to where I am today. My experience was pretty similar to the experiences a lot of our students at Clarke Street are having. So I came from where my students are coming from. I know their story. I lived it. I know it. And I know they can still be successful.

I grew up in St. Louis Missouri, and came to Milwaukee as a junior in high school. I graduated from James Madison High School before attending UW-Oshkosh for education. I taught at MPS’ Silver Spring School for about 12 years, with a little bit of leadership work mixed in as I completed a Masters in Educational Leadership at Cardinal Stritch. I became a School Support Teacher at Clarke Street School in 2014, and was promoted to Assistant Principal for this school year.


Q: What is your largest focus area at Clarke for the current school year?

A: This year at Clarke we have a number of focuses in both academics and school culture. But our largest focus area puts these two areas together: We are taking a systematic approach to developing a culture for learning. We want everything we do to systematically contribute to creating a student and staff culture that facilitates learning. So we are using things like PBIS, but we’re doing it in a way that intentionally strengthens classroom instruction. (Editor’s note: Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports [PBIS] is a research-based, district-wide initiative that focuses on encouraging positive student behavior through a common set of tools and practices.)

Q: How is STCM supporting you and your team in this focus area?

A: From a leadership standpoint, Schools That Can Milwaukee has helped me and Principal Burns get on the same page. This began with defining an instructional vision for our school: Every student will be actively engaged in learning as they work toward achieving their highest individual level, both socially and academically. With that vision in mind, our STCM coaches – Andy Vitrano and Arianne Stern — have worked to help us focus on practical steps we can take to achieve that vision, and how we can measure our progress toward it.

Andy and Arianne helped define “look fors” – things we can watch for in classrooms and measure to understand our schoolwide progress. One of these is “embedded assessment,” actions teachers can use to check for student understanding throughout their lessons to gauge how well students are learning.

Our STCM coaches have been so supportive in looking at the steps we’re taking, giving us consistent feedback, and helping us to refine things. They also help us know when to slow down and not take on so much at once. We want so badly to do well at everything all at once, but they help us really focus and say, “What can we actually do, and do it in the best, most meaningful way, so that our teachers feel supported.”


Q: What actions have you already taken this year to move forward in your focus area? What progress have you seen as a result?

A: We’ve conducted a lot of teacher professional development focused on embedded assessment. We began by introducing teachers to a few examples they could use, and now we are exposing them to many types of embedded assessment. We are starting to see these techniques getting used in classrooms, with teachers stopping to gauge student understanding as the lesson goes on. By the end of the year, we want our teachers to have an arsenal of embedded assessment techniques, and an understanding of which ones work best under which circumstances. We have the ball rolling on this. It’s not at the place we would like, but it’s a beginning.


Q: What are your plans for the rest of the school year?

A: We are going to continue working to maintain what we’ve established, and to improve at what we’ve initiated. We are going to keep supporting our teachers and give them feedback around all these themes. I want to bring our staff together and have critical conversations about data and results, and get everyone at the table together to talk about what’s going well and what we could do better. If we keep doing what we’re doing well, refining it, and giving feedback, it is going to strengthen our work this year and help us start to set goals for next year as we figure out what can be even better.

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