Upholding a community legacy and family namesake
Shirita Hightower remembers visiting the former Mackenzie High School as a child back in the 1970s. She spent long hours onsite at the school building that originally occupied the corner lot of West Chicago and Wyoming Ave. with her mother, a 41-year educator at the original Mackenzie.
Hightower recalls being in awe – even as a child – of the dedication and passion that her mother possessed as a teacher who rose through the ranks to become Assistant Principal of Mackenzie High and principal at several schools.
“I got to see my mother working day in and day out for the betterment of children,” says Hightower. “And I was inspired by just her aura. Everything about her was for, and about, children.
“Even as a kid, it was very important and personal for me to be a part of the Mackenzie legacy. I grew up in Mackenzie. … I was there from the beginning. That was something that I wanted to continue in my lifetime. I was so inspired by my mother. I wanted to follow in her footsteps. … If I could be a tenth of the person and educator that my mother was, I’d be quite proud and quite fulfilled in my career.”
Hightower is indeed carrying on her mother’s legacy as the current Assistant Principal of the new Mackenzie Elementary-Middle School, a beautifully constructed Pre-K-8 school built on the site of the former Mackenzie High School, which was torn down in 2012. The new $21.8 million state-of-the-art structure includes three colorful wings – a main community wing, an elementary wing serving grades Pre-K-5, and a middle school wing that serves grades 6-8.
More than 1,000 students who attend Mackenzie – the largest elementary/middle school in the state – enjoy a large, open media center, gymnasium and an abundance of after-school activities within a building that was created with a focus on student safety. The building design adheres to national standards set by CPTED (Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design) and LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design). The separation of grade levels is also a safety measure.
While these features may not seem like a big deal to students, they certainly are for parents, says Mackenzie Principal Tracy Carpenter.
“Parents know once they enter the doors of Mackenzie, their children are safe, secure and loved,” says Carpenter, who has been principal of Mackenzie Pre-K-8 since the school’s inception.
Carpenter is also a member of the original Mackenzie family. As a long-time teacher at Mackenzie High School, Carpenter says his transition to principal at the elementary-middle school was a natural fit.
“I have students here now whose parents were my students at the old Mackenzie,” he says, smiling in a reminiscent tone. “We have a legacy. And even though Mackenzie High School is gone, we pull from the legacy of Mackenzie and the pride that everyone in the community holds for the Mackenzie name.
“We are all one big family with one shared focus: educating our children,” Carpenter says. “We have programs to help children achieve beyond the classroom with staff members who are family oriented.”
Hightower adds: “The way that our teachers and staff members care for their students is really unique. They are all so committed to making Mackenzie a center of excellence, and we work together as a team, as a family.”
The word family is a consistent theme around the Mackenzie campus, and not just for educators and administrators. When asked what they love most about their school, several students mentioned the word family.
Derek Hightower, the nephew of Assistant Principal Shirita Hightower, says there’s a lot of weight on his shoulders to carry the Hightower name.
“I want to make sure I proudly represent my family,” says the 13-year-old eighth-grader. So he’s sure to turn in all of his work on time and stay out of trouble. But even if his family was not connected to the school, Derek says he’d still want to attend Mackenzie.
“I love this school. The teachers and staff are so dedicated, they treat us like their own kids,” he says.
Bryanna Goree, 13, says when she originally transferred to Mackenzie in the sixth grade, she was behind in her studies. Now an eighth-grade student, Goree’s teachers have not only helped her get up to speed, she is now one of the top students in her class.
“The teachers here, they treat us like we’re their children,” says Goree, echoing the sentiments of Derek Hightower.
The familiar phrase is shared once again by Christain Brown, a fellow eighth-grader at Mackenzie.
“I love this school because the teachers and the staff members are so dedicated to helping students,” he says.
Both Brown and Goree also mention unique experiences and programs offered through Mackenzie as reasons why they love their school. Goree remembers attending an electrical engineering camp at Wayne State University and immediately decided she wants to become an engineer.
While Brown’s favorite subject is English Language Arts, he aspires to become an animal biologist. “Some kids watched Elmo, but I was the one kid that watched Animal Planet because I always had a fondness for animals,” he shares.
Brown says his English teachers have helped him get one step closer to achieving his career goal.
“To do anything in life, you have to know how to read. At Mackenzie, my teachers have helped me boost my fluency, my comprehension and everything else that I need to read,” he adds.
If he was given the chance to leave Mackenzie during his elementary-middle school years to attend another school, Browns says hands-down, he wouldn’t leave.
“Our teachers, our staff, everyone is so dedicated to helping us. They form a bond, almost as though we’re their children. You really can’t get much better than that.”
Some offerings: Mackenzie offers physical education and after-school programs including a Bible Club, After-School Tutoring, Soul Patrol drill team, Accelerated Reading/Math, Community and Business Partnerships, Sports, SEEK (Summer Engineering Experience for Kids) Camp and more.