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North Park

Esteemed Northside Learning Center Principal Retires, But Won’t Stop Fighting For Mental Health And Special Education

The North Park school, which serves students 14-22 with intellectual disabilities, added a greenhouse, garden and student-run cafe under Karren Ray's leadership.

Northside Learning Center's outging principal Karren Ray poses for a photo in the high schools sensory nature garden in North Park on June 9, 2022.
Ariel Parrella-Aureli/Block Club Chicago
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NORTH PARK — Karren Ray might need to rearrange her home to make way for all the cards and gifts she’s received from students and staff as she prepares to retire.

Ray, 66, the principal of Northside Learning Center High School at 3730 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., is retiring this month after four years on the job and 30 years with Chicago Public Schools. The beloved leader and educator received a stack of signed cards, paintings, photographs and well-wishes at the school’s last assembly of the year last week. It included a musical sendoff with the theme song of her favorite TV show, “Star Trek.”

“Do they know me, or what?” Ray said, laughing.

Credit: Ariel Parrella-Aureli/Block Club Chicago
Northside Learning Center’s outgoing principal Karren Ray reads cards from students she received at the last school assembly of the year on June 9, 2022.

After a whirlwind few years because of the pandemic and more than a decade at the school, Ray feels it’s time to pass on the baton to another leader who can carry on the school’s mission.

“Even though people think I have so much energy and I will probably only stop for 30 minutes — which is probably true — there is a timing you feel,” she said. “I wanted to make sure the work would have the energy and the vision to keep going.”

Northside Learning Center serves students 14-22 with intellectual disabilities and impaired adaptive functioning. Ray said she will miss the students, parents and teachers who have made the school a magical environment that fosters confidence, growth and perseverance.

“This place has my heart,” she said. “Watching our students transform and become these confident, independent adults is better than anything.”

Ray has been in education for nearly 45 years and began working for CPS in 1992 as a special education teacher at Darwin Elementary in Logan Square. She then worked in the district’s central office for 10 years and was the assistant principal at Northside Learning Center from 2011 to 2017. She became principal in 2018.

Ray helped the school secure a $1.2 million grant from CPS’ 2019 budget, which was used to renovate Northside Learning Center’s greenhouse and paint murals inside the halls.

Under Ray’s leadership, the school also received $70,000 in 2018 from community nonprofit Chicago Cares and Discover, which was used to fund the school’s sensory garden and its student-run cafe.

Credit: Ariel Parrella-Aureli/Block Club Chicago
The sensory garden at Northside Learning Center, 3730 W. Bryn Mawr Ave., The garden features sculptures in green, red, blue and yellow, as well as aromatic flowers and nasturtiums, edible plants with red flowers that contain high levels of vitamin C.

The projects were a big win for the curriculum, which offers a range of educational programs and employment opportunities for students to get involved with the community, foster independence and learn vital life skills as they enter the adult world. 

“We really want to always look at what our students can do and not what they can’t do,” Ray said when the projects were completed in 2020.

Ray has long been a fierce advocate for people with varying abilities, social justice and mental health, and she said she hopes to continue her leadership in the future.

Ray and her husband, pastor Bruce Ray from the Kimball Avenue United Church of Christ in Logan Square, helped push for the all-affordable housing complex that opened in the neighborhood last month after eight years of planning. The duo were also leaders in the Chicago Coalition to Save Our Mental Health Services, a group of neighbors that pushed for a Northwest Side community-funded mental health clinic.

“People have told me that with retirement, you can choose the things you want to do and follow your passions,” she said. “I am looking at it as what opportunity is next to help and serve.”

In addition to advocacy work, Ray is looking forward to catching up on “Star Trek,” sleeping and traveling.

‘You Don’t Do This Work Alone’

Assistant Principal Elizabeth Mourtokokis, who hopes to fill the role as principal, called Ray a role model and said she will miss Ray’s grace and leadership — and “putting out fires” together.

“She gave me a chance by bringing me from a teacher to an administrative role after knowing me for a couple of years,” Mourtokokis said. “I am grateful she saw something in me to help me build my leadership. … We have different personalities, but we meshed like peanut butter and jelly. We balanced each other really well, and I will miss that.”

Biology teacher Cikea Mason called Ray an encourager who always inspires people.

“Mrs. Ray has an aura about her that can radiate a room,” Mason said. “She can make you smile even on your worst day.”

Credit: Ariel Parrella-Aureli/Block Club Chicago
Northside Learning Center’s outging principal Karren Ray received artwork from students and staff to celebrate her retirement.

Mason said Ray taught her how to be optimistic, stick to her guns and to “make sure that this is where you want to walk in the path.” She hopes to continue that determination in her career and remember the power of persistence and following dreams.

Holding back tears, Ray said the feeling is mutual. The job is not easy — it takes a certain kind of person to work with youth with special needs — but the staff at Northside Learning Center are what makes the school’s wheels turn, she said.

“The people that come here and stay here are committed to this work fiercely. … The teacher leadership is very strong,” she said. “I joke, but it’s the absolute truth: Together, we are one brain. If I was a good principal, it was because of the team around me. You don’t do this work alone.”

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