Had you walked into Fenger Academy High School on any given June or July day, you’d likely have questioned whether school was indeed out for summer. With students teeming through its halls for summer classes or flinging basketballs in the gym, Fenger was almost as busy as it was when it kicked off the 2014-2015 school year in September. Ask how Fenger’s principal, Elizabeth Dozier, 36, spent her summer vacation and she’ll simply chuckle and reply, “What summer vacation?!”
Such is the work of Dozier, whose effort to turn around the once-violence riddled and underperforming Fenger High made her the unlikely breakout star of the popular CNN docuseries “Chicagoland.” While critics argued that the series – which ran for eight weeks this spring – was akin to a campaign advertisement for embattled Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, the most authentic moments of “Chicagoland” came from Fenger’s students and administrators.
“Fenger isn’t a set. This is really a school, and this is really the work we do,” says Dozier, who greeted droves of backpack-toting teenagers on their first day back by waving pom-poms and offering a rousing “Welcome back!” Sometimes her work requires her to leave the schoolhouse and enter the space she hopes to never see her students: prison. But if they end up there, she’ll press her nose against glass barrier separating visitors from inmates to ask about next steps: “We need a solid plan for when you get out of here.”
For Dozier, it’s all in a day’s work. “Why wouldn’t I go visit one of my incarcerated students? It’s just part of who I am,” she says. “My mother was a school teacher. In college, I led summer camps for high schoolers.” As a math teacher, she earned the nation’s highest certification in the subject. After obtaining a master’s degree in educational leadership, Dozier was tapped to assist Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS’) turnaround efforts, an initiative prompted by then-CPS chief (and current U.S. Secretary of Education) Arne Duncan.
Weeks after Dozier joined Fenger in 2009, 16-year-old honors student Derrion Albert was brutally beaten afterschool. The fatal attack, captured on video, caught the attention of national news media and incited the country’s ire. Albert’s death was an unfortunate watershed in Chicago’s swell of violence, which often occured in its poorest and Blackest neighborhoods. Charged with scooping Fenger from this low point, Dozier poured $1.6 million federal grant dollars into programs serving students’ holistic needs. Most notable of these is restorative justice, which she says helps educators become proactive “as opposed to reactive when something happen[s].”
In peace circles—one element of Fenger’s restorative justice methods— students who find themselves at odds can resolve the he-said-she-said of teenage gossip and address the serious encounters that may spiral violently without mediative intervention.
“Peace circles allow everyone to have a voice,” Dozier says, indicating that restorative justice is one of many approaches to offering a turnkey educational experience. “It’s about having multi-layered social, emotional, and academic support for kids. If a kid reads at a fourth-grade level, we can do all the restorative justice we want but that kid is going to act up in class if he’s not getting what he needs.”
Dozier employs staff who is equally as dedicated to the students’ wellbeing. One security officer combs through students’ Facebook pages to keep conflict instigated on social media from escalating in real life. “If words are being exchanged, we know that we have to stop those kids and have a conversation with them. Before they even hit a classroom,” Dozier explains.
Prom may be a rite-of-passage, but it is not a right at Fenger; an Associated Press (AP) report indicates that attendees must earn their way to the big dance by achieving 90 percent attendance during the school year. It’s a viable end-of-year incentive when 85 percent of Fenger’s students is chronically truant, each missing about eight days a year without valid excuse.
With Dozier at its helm, Fenger’s four-year graduation rate has spiked at 73 percent, a 26 percent boost from its 2009 rate and just trailing the nation’s average of 75 percent. Additionally, incidences of misconduct have seen a marked decline. The AP notes 850 cases of injurious brawls, gang activity, and on-campus drugs and weapons during Dozier’s first year as principal. That year also saw 200 on-campus arrests. During the 2013-2013 school year – eight months of which were filmed for “Chicagoland” – there were fewer than 12 arrests and little more than 200 misconduct cases at the school.
“The turnaround process can take 10 years according to research. We’re halfway there. We’re a work in progress,” Dozier says.
Although 10-day suspensions are the traditional consequence for student infractions, Fenger offers in-school suspensions where students do schoolwork and assess their behavior in a room separate from their classmates. Central to Dozier’s leadership philosophy — as evidenced by the in-school suspension model — is the assurance of student engagement and safety, tenets to which she abides even during summer break.
Incidences of crime rise with temperatures – that’s what Chicago’s violence trends have proven. Idle time spent in the neighborhood could be dangerous for Chicago’s teens. To curb this, businesses and community services descended upon Fenger’s cafeteria last spring for a summer program fair. “Fast food restaurants and groups like Afterschool Matters support the youth by offering summer jobs and opportunities. There has to be a strong partnership between schools and businesses,” Dozier says. Fenger hosts12 summer programs on-site, hence the midsummer days’ activity. “We have to make sure the kids are engaged and safe over the summer.”
One benefit of “Chicagoland’s” exposure has been the interest of local entrepreneurs seeking to mentor her students. Chicago restaurateur Billy Dec, also featured on the series, recently hosted a group of Fenger students for a culinary mentorship program. “Billy has supported the school within the last five years, even before the camera lights turned on,” Dozier says.
Federal grant funding ended in 2013, and Dozier fights the misconception that cable TV notoriety has boosted the campus’ budget. “We’re still at a point of struggle when it comes to providing kids with what they need.”
Dec spearheads a CrowdRise.com fundraising campaign for Fenger, surpassing $97,000 in donations. During a June episode of “The Steve Harvey Show,” Harvey presented Dozier with $10,000 to support the school’s programs.
In addition to these contributions, Dozier appreciates that Fenger’s moment in the limelight has created awareness of education in underserved communities. “This is a catalyst for a national conversation on what is possible for urban youth. Sharing the story debunks the myths about educating stereotyped Black and Brown kids,” she says. “When we tune in – in this case, literally – we become aware that there’s not just a single note; it’s a symphony— the complexity of these communities, these kids’ lives, and what they face just to get from point A to B.”
Leading Fenger is a round-the-clock job, though in Dozier’s minimal free time, the yoga enthusiast hangs out with loved ones. “But I wouldn’t say there’s a time when I’m off limits. If you’re passionate about your work, it doesn’t feel like you’re punching a clock; it feels like a calling.”