LifeChanger of the Year Nominee Profile

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Tammie Ismail

Position: Principal
School: Aqsa School
School District: Aqsa School
City, State: Bridgeview, IL

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Music that Describes Tammie

Tammie Ismail was nominated by her colleague, Nadia Ismail.

Tammie has dedicated nearly 20 years of her life to empowering the students at an all-girls school in an immigrant and minority community. She's the quintessential public servant. She has always led by giving all that she has to turn the small school she graduated from into a learning powerhouse and nurturing space that empowers young women to lead.

Tammie is a graduate of the University of Chicago who began working at Aqsa School after her back-to-back undergraduate and graduate studies. She returned to the high school that she graduated from with a new set of skills and as a visionary. She was set on improving the quality of education for every student.

When Tammie graduated from Aqsa School, a large portion of students did not go on to college. She came back within a few years of her own high school graduation determined to change that. Her dedication was evident from the very beginning. Tammie quickly rose from serving as the US History Teacher, to the Dean of Students, to the Assistant Principal, and finally, to her current position as principal.

When Tammie was just a teacher, she put in every effort to introduce Advanced Placement (AP) courses that allowed girls at Aqsa School to test their skills, find their own ambition, and rise with excitement to meet opportunities to learn, grow, and challenge themselves. She led by example, ushering in Advanced Placement courses through her own history department.

When Tammie became principal, the number of AP and honors courses grew substantially school-wide. At the same time, she ensured that the number of extracurricular opportunities offered through the school also grew exponentially. Tammie opened doors to new experiences for the students to build their confidence. The girls flourished and thrived, winning state competitions in science fairs and robotics, as well as national competitions in speech, poetry, and literature. Her students were named in publications by local researchers and highlighted by the Museum of Science and Industry for their advancements in science, technology, engineering, art, and math (STEAM). In a single year, two of her students were chosen to be Coca Cola Scholars out of a pool of hundreds of thousands of applicants.

Her small school was named among the Top STEM High Schools by Newsweek. Her teachers were recognized by Golden Apple. She worked diligently and humbly in the background for hours and hours each day, sincerely dedicating her life to the growth and success of everyone in the school. The school came such an astoundingly long way under her leadership.

"She is so dedicated to service and so full of humility that she simply cheers on the accolades," said Nadia. "We rarely reflect on how much credit she deserves for the monumental new achievements of our small school. Tammie has guided us all to become our best selves."

Tammie cares so deeply about school culture and the well-being of students and staff. Having a compassionate leader in this year of COVID-19-related isolation and anxiety has meant so much. She was the one who pushed for Aqsa School to have a social worker, along with better prioritization of the arts for the sake of student wellness in all years. She introduced self-care weeks for staff. Aqsa School is a safe haven, and the students have positive feelings about themselves with her as their guide. That is so critical at all times, but especially in this past year. In short - Tammie has risen to the COVID-19 challenge as she always does, despite this year being full of uncertainty.

The impact of COVID on Aqsa School was substantial. Tammie had admirable foresight and prepared students for the possibility of remote learning before it was announced. Her school has very few resources, but Tammie prioritized tech capacity growth in the years before 2019. As such, they were prepared for the coming storm with a 1-to-1 student-to-device ratio that she personally raised funds each year until it became a reality. Improving the use of tech in the classroom has been a hallmark of her time as principal.

The Friday before schools were asked to help flatten the curve by closing, Tammie anticipated what was to come. She sent each student home with a device, prepared them, and gave them her love. Tammie stayed up very late every night in the weekend before schools were asked to close. She was patiently teaching her most veteran teachers how to adapt to the digital learning environment very quickly.

School began with live-instruction via Zoom immediately. There were no days off to get things situated, and no interruption in student learning. Classes were not prerecorded. Due to resource limitations, the school had no IT department to speak of, yet Tammie somehow managed to guide her teachers to this completely new way of teaching. She did so effectively and with incredible speed. She spent all day and night giving each teacher the attention they needed. Tammie used her admin team wisely to ensure every student could connect to their teachers. By Monday morning, school was in session online! It was amazing.

Tammie teaches at an Islamic School, and the month of Ramadan came just after the stay at home order. Tammie knew it would be the loneliest Ramadan her students ever experienced. She drove to the home of every single student throughout the month of Ramadan, giving them well wishes for a blessed month and lifting their spirits. The kids longed to be back in school, and this was a welcome surprise. Tammie had always been a champion for fun in school, and distance learning could not stop her from keeping that up.

Since returning to school in August, Tammie has worked hard to address the social impact of COVID-19. She invested in mental health-focused professional development for teachers with local psychologists. She also carved out advisory time in this year's schedule and created a program in coordination with a local psychiatrist to help students in middle school address their feelings as they grow in this uncertain time. Tammie is also a champion for public health, so she brought a public health professional on as the school public health officer to keep everyone safe. She has ensured that her school goes above and beyond the baseline public health recommendations for schools to keep all of her students and staff safe. She brought an infectious disease doctor to teach staff about the virus over the summer, supplied staff with the best quality PPE, and efficiently used grants to mitigate COVID-19 risks.

Out of great consideration, Tammie has also allowed high-risk teachers to teach from home while she sits with the students in their classrooms. Tammie is a not just a LifeChanger, but a dedicated life-saver. She is running a school in the most challenging year, pursuing reaccreditation and going above and beyond to accommodate her staff, all while raising 5 kids at home! Tammie's care for those around her is what drives her to wake up each day and try to make life better for her minority, immigrant community that day than it was the day before.

COVID-19 had a significant impact on the ability of students' families to pay the Aqsa School tuition. It was difficult for the school. Again, Tammie led with compassion. She said no student should lose the opportunity to learn and grow at the school due to an inability to pay. She raised funds on a crowd-sourcing platform and ended up raising the most money Aqsa School has ever raised online. Tammie sought scholarships for individual students and worked with state agencies to introduce programs and grants that would help parents afford to send their kids to a school that Tammie has always believed to be special.

When the curve had flattened, and people were able to leave our homes, Tammie rallied community organizations to make last year's delayed graduation one that the students would never forget. It was outdoors and socially distant, but it was so special. The students who had missed school and each other were able to celebrate in the most beautiful ceremony!

"As information about years of 100% college acceptance and matriculation rates and scholarships after scholarships were read out for girls on the graduation stage, I stood so proud of Tammie," said Nadia. "The girls achieved so much because she put in 20 years of extremely hard work. The success of our girls comes from Tammie's sincere dedication to motivating the girls in our community to dream big, surmount obstacles, and always believe in themselves. I have never met anyone who works as tirelessly to change the lives of young girls in our community as Tammie. She is a LifeChanger."

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