This article was written by Elizabeth Male and was published in StriveTogether on September 23, 2022.
When Liz Dozier arrived at Fenger High School, it felt like someone had dimmed the lights. At the time, it was known as one of most violent and underperforming schools in Chicago. During Dozier’s first year as principal, 300 arrests happened in the building. The school’s drop-out rate was 20%, and the graduation rate was just 40%.
“Each of my students was an infinite microcosm of possibility,” she shared, comparing their potential to stars in the night sky. But so many barriers were impacting students’ abilities to be free, dimming the lights on their futures.
Dozier started her time as principal focused on structure and discipline, prioritizing policies and procedures. After a year, though, she realized the school wasn’t seeing the changes it needed.
“Day after day, our students’ ecosystems were subjecting them to repeated trauma,” Dozier explained. A “one-size-fits-all” approach and “tough-on-behavior“ tactics weren’t helping the students, so she made a shift.
After Dozier’s six years at Fenger High School, the 300 annual arrests became fewer than 10. The drop-out rate fell to 2%, and the graduation rate doubled to 80%. As one of the opening keynote speakers at the 2022 Cradle to Career Network Convening, Dozier, now founder and CEO of Chicago Beyond, shared what changed to turn the school into a bright spot. Here are a few of the insights she offered to the more than 500 changemakers gathered at the event in Chicago.
Stop to ask what the data is telling you.
In her first year, Dozier tracked a lot of data on her students. Across the StriveTogether Cradle to Career Network, data is a key component to building stronger communities. But it’s critical to pause and reflect on what the data really means, Dozier shared. And to her, that meant truly seeing each of her students.
“What was really in that data? How often has each of us really failed to see someone? At Fenger, we were missing some of our kids, widening the inequities and creating more issues,” she said.
Using data effectively meant not just looking at the numbers but seeking the story behind the numbers — the lived reality of each of the students at the high school.
“We changed the question from ‘What’s wrong with you?’ to ‘What happened to you?’” Dozier shared. From there, she and her team could better understand the students and their needs, and better create strategies to address them.
Let go of your assumptions.
Truly understanding your data and the root causes of the challenges of your community can lead to shifting the way you look at your work. For Dozier, this shift had a profound impact.
“We were operating under the assumption that our students need to be controlled,” she said. “The reality is that we — as adults — were the barriers to their freedom. As a collective of adults, we were the system that was standing in their way.”
When they let go of their assumptions, Dozier and her team began to see her students through a more nuanced and complex lens. This expansion allowed them to see the larger, underlying issues behind the students’ challenges at school — the overall ecosystem in which young people in the community existed.
“Our children are not problems to be solved. They are individuals who are in need of healing, in need of adults to step up and make different and better decisions in their best interests,” Dozier shared. Her work shifted from its focus on policies and strict discipline. The school adopted restorative practices and implemented mental health and wellness resources, including group counseling and individual counseling for students. And these changes led to results.
Bring more people to the table.
Reaching better outcomes involves more than the principal and teachers — it requires everyone in the environment that affects students. Dozier began bringing more people to the table, including coaches, counselors, janitors, secretaries and more to build a holistic web of support.
This holistic approach is important not just in day-to-day work, but for a longer-term focus as well, including funding.
“The original intention of philanthropy is to be of service and to listen to the voices of the people we’re serving,” Dozier shared. In 2016, after her time at Fenger High School, Dozier launched Chicago Beyond, an impact investor that invests in ideas, individuals and organizations. The organization takes a trust-based philanthropy approach to fight pervasive inequities.
“We need to maintain our proximity to communities and take our own egos and power dynamic off the table to truly show up in solidarity with the people we serve,” she said.
So far, Chicago Beyond has invested close to $50 million into ideas, individuals and organizations to ensure that young people are truly free. Their work includes investing in larger systems, like Chicago Public Schools, and supporting hyper-local organizations.
Start small, and start with yourself.
When change seems daunting, Dozier reminded the Cradle to Career Network that change starts with all of us.
“Systems, after all, are made up of people, and as the people, we truly have the power,” she said.
At Fenger High School, Dozier saw firsthand that wide-scale change starts with small things — things like shifting discipline practices, creating a warm environment and supporting students to graduate.
“Every single interaction, how we show up — it’s the small things we need to pay attention to for our students, our young people and our communities,” Dozier shared.
Change is possible, and it starts with the radical power of individuals to influence their environments and shape the future, Dozier said. “We’re in the midst of this revolution,” she said. “The freedom of all of our children depends on each and every one of us.”