Fenger High School celebrates Peace Week
Dawn Turner Trice, Chicago Tribune, 03/26/2012
Program is part of principal's approach to teaching nonviolence at the school
Last week was Peace Week at Fenger High School. This week is spring break. Principal Elizabeth Dozier told me that students hold the event the week before vacation because they think it has a calming effect during the time off.
Dozier is 34, but as she was standing amid a crowd of students gathered outside Thursday for a brief ceremony, she could easily have passed for one of them.
She came to the school in September 2009 to help fix Fenger. It's considered a "turnaround" school because of students' behavior problems and low test scores and attendance rates.
She had been on the job only a few days when sophomore Derrion Albert was brutally killed and his death made national news.
In the aftermath, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder flew to Chicago and met with Dozier and others to discuss anti-violence strategies. From her office window, she watched for weeks as national and local news trucks clogged Wallace Street.
"Since then, I've lost seven other students," said Dozier, who grew up in south suburban Crestwood. "Six of them died in violent ways."
She said she didn't know Derrion well. But she knew the other students and attended each of their funerals.
She understands that children are taught violence, and that means her work is often about reteaching them what's appropriate when dealing with confrontations.
Dozier has tried to change the culture at the school — helping students and their parents learn nonviolent ways to resolve conflicts. She has created "peace circles," which assemble angry parties so they can talk through spats that in the past might have escalated into violence, and "restorative justice" conferences that focus on repairing harm.
"During my first three months here, there was a parent who tried to come to the school to get into the cafeteria to fight one of the students. A parent," Dozier said. "Now fast-forward 2½ years and this same parent was concerned about something and told one of the staff members that she wanted (to assemble) a peace circle. That was huge.
"She gets the language and sees the process as a powerful modality."
Dozier said peace circles might sound elementary or even corny, but if students haven't learned certain social skills at home, they need to be taught how to disagree appropriately.
"Not all the kids, but certainly enough of them haven't been taught this," she said. "If you don't value yourself, why would you value someone else? In addition to what we teach from the textbooks, we do a lot of building kids up and making them feel good about themselves."
Walk around Fenger today and you begin to understand her philosophy. She believes students can't learn surrounded by clutter — so everything is organized and immaculate. Floors are swept and buffed. The halls are well-lit, with walls that are filled with colorful artwork and esteem-building posters.
In the cafeteria is a stunning peace mural that students built out of decorative mosaic tile. Hanging on the ceiling just outside the main office are two colorful canopies of paper cranes that students made last year for Peace Week.
"We don't have the newest building in Chicago," Dozier said, "but it will be a clean, orderly and colorful environment that reflects who they are."
Much of this wasn't in place prior to her arrival. Neither were the computer-generated sheets of paper that she hangs in the corridors that list the students who are on track academically and have good attendance, and those who aren't.
The Chicago Public Schools system requires turnaround schools to record all drug-related and violent conduct in the system's database. Dozier's numbers show that Fenger's incidents have greatly diminished from more than 450 inside the school during fall 2009 to a little more than 150 inside and outside the school last fall.
"It makes no sense to try to game the system," she said. "We need an accurate picture so that we can make real-time decisions. If we lie on the numbers, all we're really hurting are the kids because we're not applying the appropriate remedies."
The older students remember the way things were a few years ago and know it takes time for change to really take hold.
Fenger senior Adrienne Dixon, 18, is a member of the Peace and Leadership Council of the Mikva Challenge, a civic and leadership organization for youths. The council helped organize last week's event. Dixon said the violence around Chicago, especially during weekends, is a constant cause for talk among students Monday mornings.
"Every Monday, it's almost like somebody knows somebody who's been shot," she said Thursday, as we watched students release red and green balloons into the sky. "We're trying to say there's got to be another way. Too many kids are dying."
Originally published here.