Yara Santillan traded her sneakers for high heels, her gym for a cubicle and her whistle for a smartphone.
What the new coordinator of Physical Education for the Chicago Public Schools hasn’t given up is her drive and ambition to make a positive difference for children through sport.
“I look at my own personal experience,” says Santillan, a two-time alumna of the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education. “I’ve always noticed that, in the times when I’ve really needed something, sport has always been there. It’s always been there for me. Sport kept me out of trouble.”
Growing up in suburban Aurora during the 1990s – she was born in Mexico but moved with her family to Kane County at the age of 18 months – Santillan glimpsed the danger lurking on the streets but wisely chose kickball and basketball over “the wrong crowd.”
Her decision to stay on the straight path, along with her K-12 academic success, resulted in a scholarship to attend NIU. Without a clear career path in mind, however, Santillan couldn’t find her footing in DeKalb and soon left for home.
One year later, she returned as a commuter student, earning straight A’s. Her unease lingered, however, and she became “a two-time college dropout.”
“I knew that college was important, and I was trying to get myself through school,” she says, “but I hadn’t found something I was truly passionate about. I was out of school for the next seven years.”
During that time, she worked at a restaurant. In 2009, she donned the Huskie red-and-black again – and the third time was, of course, the charm.
After completing her bachelor’s degree in Physical Education, she secured a position as a graduate assistant and began work toward her master’s in Exercise Physiology.
Santillan crossed the NIU Graduate School commencement stage on a Friday evening in May of 2014. Less than 72 hours later, on a Monday, she sat for an interview with the Chicago Public Schools. Hired on the spot, she began work immediately to complete the school year for a P.E. teacher who’d taken a leave of absence.
By the end of her temporary gig in June, a full-time position with CPS was hers.
“What I love the most is getting kids to set goals. When we work on a skill, a lot of kids think immediately that they can’t do it, or they try not to do it, but then they get very excited when they see they can do something,” Santillan says. “And when they do that in P.E., they’re going to be able to transfer that and do it another part of their life.”
Part of that philosophy – life lessons through P.E. – is a gospel evangelized by Paul Wright, NIU’s EC Lane and MN Zimmerman Endowed Professor in Kinesiology and Physical Education.
“When I supervised Yara’s secondary clinical placements for the P.E. licensure program, I found out she decided to teach because she had a deep belief in the potential of physical education and sport to have a positive influence on children,” Wright says. “In particular, she said she had a passion for reaching children and youth who might be struggling due to circumstances in their lives and their communities.”
Following the Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility model on which Wright focuses his scholarship, Santillan worked alongside her professor for several semesters in an after-school program for “at-risk” youth in a DeKalb middle school.
Her hands-on learning included promoting responsibility and tailoring programs to youth with more social and emotional challenges
“This approach really fit her existing values and commitments, but gave her some new strategies, structures and concepts to integrate into her teaching. She went on to apply these ideas, while making them her own, in her very successful career in CPS,” Wright says. “She is proof that the best theories and ideas are ones that can be put into practice.”
In her new role with CPS – leaving the gym “was one of my most difficult decisions but worth it,” she says – Santillan works with all of the district’s P.E. teachers to boost their productivity and, by extension, enhance student outcomes.
Serving as a “cultural mentor,” she ensures that the teachers are following standards, writing and implementing lesson plans, practicing concepts of Social and Emotional Learning and conducting assessment.
Meanwhile, she stresses to her teachers that P.E. is “not just inside the four walls of school” but also something that can empower students, parents and siblings through newsletters, after-school programs and family nights.
“Overall, I’ve had really positive response from the teachers,” Santillan says. “I tell them, ‘I know what you’re doing is important and meaningful, and I’m with you.’ They know I genuinely care about what they’re doing – that I care about their success, the kids’ success and that P.E. is one of the most important content areas in school.”
For her own role in extending P.E. beyond the school grounds, Santillan has volunteered with Beyond the Ball, “an organization that uses the power of sport to change lives, give hope, reclaim space and develop a culture of opportunities for youth and families in Chicago.”
She plans a 2020 run for a seat in the Illinois General Assembly. She also is contemplating a return to college for a doctorate and perhaps a career teaching in higher education.
At this point, however, her future is in the Windy City.
“I’m increasing teacher effectiveness in the City of Chicago, and I see myself doing that for quite some time,” she says. “I still have the same passion, but instead of teaching 600 students in my school, I have the opportunity to reach 381,000 students in CPS.”
Wright applauds her commitment, calling its beneficiaries fortunate. That group soon will include current students in the Department of Kinesiology and Physical Education after Santillan returns Monday, Oct. 9, as a guest speaker.
“The students she has worked with in the schools, our current students at NIU and P.E. teachers throughout Chicago are lucky to have Yara as a champion and a role model for doing what you believe is important and right, for yourself – and for others,” he says. “It’s been my pleasure to work with her and follow her success.”