Our School Leaders
Namaste Charter School is proud to welcome Natalie C. Neris as our new Executive Director/Head of School, effective June 5, 2017.
Natalie comes to Namaste from Chicago International Charter School where she served as chief of academic accountability. She drove the design and implementation of CICS’s structure for academic accountability, which was firmly grounded in her core belief that teachers, school leaders and parent partnerships are our most critical levers for improving outcomes for students.
Natalie leverages her work in education to advocate for social justice and equitable access for students in underserved communities. The first in her family to graduate from college, Natalie began her career with Chicago Public Schools in her own Humboldt Park community. While in the classroom, Natalie earned a Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching and became a nationally board-certified teacher.
A part of Chicago’s educational ecosystem as a student, teacher, administrator and parent, Natalie is keenly aware that access to a quality education is a game-changer for all students, especially for students living in the most under-resourced urban communities.
She is deeply committed to health and wellness and believes that developing students’ social emotional competencies is as critical as developing their intellectual capacity and their ability to think critically. Natalie views language and culture as a tremendous asset to student success and celebrates diversity and inclusivity for all.
She earned her undergraduate degree from Northeastern Illinois University and her graduate degree from Concordia University and is currently pursuing her doctorate at National Louis University. In addition to her work at CICS, Natalie serves as co-chair of the Educator Advisory Council for Advance Illinois and is a 2017 Surge Fellow.
Natalie is a mother, a meditator, a cross-fit enthusiast, a lover of words, travel, food, connection and a fighter for the underdog.
While we anxiously (and as patiently as possible) await Natalie Neris’ official start on June 5th, we wanted to find out a bit more about our new Executive Director/Head of School. Here’s a peek at Namaste’s next great leader.
On Your Career…
How did your career in education begin?
I started teaching at the ripe old age of 21. After college I wanted to teach 8th grade English Language Arts, so I sent one resume to one school in my community, Humboldt Park. In my entire experience as a student in CPS I did not have one teacher that was Latino. Growing up, there were very few, if any, Latinos that I knew who were college graduates. Going to college completely changed my life’s trajectory, so I knew that I wanted to return to my community to represent possibility for our students. More, I felt lost in my high school experience, and I wanted to teach middle school because I wanted to have the opportunity to teach students, many of whom had never left the confines of their community, to navigate that space.
Can you tell us about your career in teaching and learning, give us a quick summary?
I have always looked at my career in education as my ministry – my act of service – so it was, and continues to be, important that I am the very best version of myself for the sake of our students and their families. They are counting on us! I’ve often referred to myself as the quintessential teacher nerd – and book junkie – taking every opportunity to hone my craft and maximize impact. Although I was awarded the Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Teaching and became nationally board certified – I never felt as though I had “arrived” – I always believed that there was more that I could do to cultivate student success.
Throughout my 15-year career in education I have served as teacher and administrator – worked at school and district level – and navigated CPS and the charter world – all with the same goal in mind: to change the game for the most marginalized students. It has been an incredible journey thus far and I continue to be humbled and full of gratitude for the opportunity to lead.
What has been the highlight of your career so far?
The ability to witness the success of my students is incredibly rewarding. Many of my former students have gone on to have amazing careers – quite a few have even gone on to become teachers themselves. Success, for me, isn’t solely about how students perform within the confines of my class or school building, but how they work to make the world a better place ultimately.
Another highlight of my career has been the relationships I have been able to forge with parents and the colleagues I have worked with. Human connection is really important to me – so being able to connect with adults to inspire and be inspired by their hard work, growth mindset and commitment, has been invaluable.
What made you want to come to Namaste?
In my personal life I have found that I am my best self when I am my healthiest self – mind, body, spirit. Getting to a healthy place in my life has been intentional. It is a practice – one that I teach my two daughters. The opportunity to lead a school so aligned to my personal values is incredible. I want for Namaste’s students what I want for my own children. In addition, I also feel passionately about teaching and learning and empowering families and teachers to maximize their impact. Namaste has such an amazing foundation from which to build – everything about it is in alignment with my spirit.
What part of the job do you think will be the most fun?
I’m really excited to continue to build an amazing team at Namaste. This work is really hard work! We all want to make a positive impact on our students’ futures. I’m looking forward to forging partnerships with all Namaste stakeholders and to working alongside each of them to take Namaste to the next level.
We hear you are passionately committed to health and wellness, can you tell us more about that?
I really do believe that we are our best selves when we are our healthies selves. For me, health and wellness has been an incredibly personal journey. I was pretty significantly overweight for the first half of my life. I had to unlearn a lot of bad habits – in the way that I ate, moved my body and showed up in the world. Being healthy, in the diet and exercise sense of the word – and mind and spirit sense of the word – is one of the most important aspects of my life. Being healthy is a priority for me because it makes me a better human being.
About your Family…
Can you tell us about your family?
I have two daughters, Julia is 12 and Samantha is 10. They are both in CPS and are such a gift to me. Being their mother is easy because they are really good, kind, helpful girls. I also have a large extended family that I am very close to. I have 2 brothers and 1 sister, 10 nieces and nephews – and a host of aunts, uncles and first cousins and their children. Almost all of my family lives in Chicago, so family gatherings are what you can imagine – limited seating =), lots of food, laughter, love and a million kids running everywhere. There is never a dull moment.
Does your family have a favorite meal?
My father was Puerto Rican and my mother is both Puerto Rican and Mexican – so my family loves Latino soul food – arroz con gandules, freshly rolled tortillas, roasted pork, frijoles. We love it all!
We know you are very close to your mother, what is the one piece of advice she gave you when you were younger that you still remember?
When I was graduating from 8th grade, my mother wrote in my autograph book, “Remember, the decisions you make now will affect you for the rest of your life.” I remember reading it after she wrote it and it giving me pause. It was the first time I fully understood that my choices (good or bad) will have consequences, and that I actually played an incredible role in determining the positive or negative outcome of my choices. I want to teach my daughters to make good choices – weigh their options – to understand that so much about the path that each of us takes in life is about making the right choice. Similarly, the choices that we make are a reflection of our character.
Has that advice influenced how you act today?
While I may have stored that piece of advice in the back of my mind a time or two in my teenage years, this piece of advice has really shaped the way I parent and my approach to discipline as a teacher and school leader. I’m convinced that we have to do more than enforce rules that should be followed because “we said so” – as was often my father’s rationale.
I always ask my daughters and my students, “Who are you when no one is looking?” I know they are sick of hearing it, but I think it is important to remind them (and myself), that the person you are when no one is looking is who you really are. Are you proud of that person? There is something powerful that happens when we empower our babies to make good choices – when we offer guidance, but allow them to take ownership. In my experience as a parent and an educator, leading with love and working to embolden students with the power of choice, has done exponentially more to encourage positive behavior than any punitive approach I’ve attempted. My mother probably doesn’t know it, but she is really the one who influenced this way of thinking.
Just for Fun…
Do you like to cook?
Yes! I actually love to cook and always have. It is a form of meditation for me. I especially love to redeem recipes. I enjoy taking traditionally unhealthy dishes and putting a healthy spin on them.
What is your favorite healthy food?
I eat a lot of salads. I can make a salad out of anything!
How do you like to exercise?
I have a trainer and a team that I train with several times a week (most weeks!) – Team Silencer. We do a lot of cross-fit work and plyometrics. I am really competitive, so working out with a team is fun for me. My trainer, Paul Amos, has become a great friend and supporter of my work. Training with him has been one of the greatest gifts I’ve given myself.
What are you reading right now?
I usually have an average of about 4-5 books going at once. Currently, some of my reading is in preparation for Namaste and others are books I keep in rotation. I’m reading The First 90 Days, as well as Motion Leadership and Change Monster, which are this month’s required readings for the Surge Fellowship. I realize they don’t sound super exciting, but they actually are really good – and are giving me a lot to think about in this transition to Namaste. I’m also reading The Mastery of Self by Don Miguel Ruiz, Jr. – which I highly recommend, and my daily meditation book, Meditations from the Heart. I usually start my day with Mediations from the Heart – that, along with my morning prayer and meditation time, really help me to stay centered and emotionally healthy.
What is your favorite kids’ book?
Oh! The Places You’ll Go! by Doctor Seuss is a favorite – but I also love Corduroy and Hairy the Dirty Dog. I am a fan of the classics, for sure!
What was your favorite subject or grade when you were in K-8?
I have always loved writing – so I would say English Language Arts was my favorite. Writing and reading were always outlets for me as a child.
You describe yourself as a lover of words. Any words in particular that you love?
I love beautifully crafted sentences. I love how writers (including our students!) arrange words on paper and how, as a reader, I can hear their voice as I read. I also just like great words like juxtaposition and mitigate and hyperbole. It is not uncommon for me to hear someone say a word in conversation and to think, “Oh, that’s a good word – I’m going to start using it!” Besides reading – that is one of the ways that I continue to develop my vocabulary – even as an adult!
Do you have a quote that means something to you, one you refer to often?
This Cesar Chavez quote really communicates how I feel about the work I have been blessed to do.
We cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community… Our ambitions must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sakes and for our own. – Cesar Chavez