Principal Beulah McLoyd is stepping down at Dyett High School for the Arts, a campus she came to lead after hunger-striking community members pressed the district to reopen the South Side neighborhood school.
As the Bronzeville resident departs Dyett to train aspiring principals with a national nonprofit, McLoyd leaves the school with most of its freshmen “on track” to graduate, low dropout rates, high attendance and a Level-1 rating, the district’s second-highest rating for schools.
“I think Dyett shattered the stereotype … that black kids on the South Side of Chicago can only do well if they’re in a selective enrollment setting,” McLoyd said.
Dyett is the only Level 1 neighborhood high school in the Bronzeville and Washington Park area, McLoyd said. That rating, issued last year, doesn’t factor in the school’s latest SAT scores and graduation rates, because its first senior class won’t walk across the stage until next June. And a higher-than-average portion of its students at the school struggle to meet college readiness benchmarks in math and reading. But the district’s latest school progress report recognizes Dyett for strong leadership, highly collaborative teachers, involved families and ambitious instruction — ingredients that have it “well-organized for improvement” by district standards.
In 2015, Chicago Public Schools finished phasing out Dyett for poor performance and low enrollment. But vociferous parents and community activists led by the Kenwood Oakland Community Organization immediately ramped up their push to save the school, pushing the district to reopen it in 2016. McLoyd admits that some activists were skeptical of her hiring, done without their direct input, though a district advisory group chimed in.
This time around, McLoyd said the district plans to forward a list of her potential replacements to the community, “and let them have a voice in the decision” in a more open process. Dyett, as a recently constituted school, doesn’t yet have a Local School Council to make the call.
After she steps down Aug. 15, McLoyd will join the national non-profit New Leaders, which trains aspiring principals, as executive director of its Midwestern efforts at school districts including East Aurora, East St. Louis and Chicago. McLoyd, an alumna of the program, touts her efforts to build teacher leadership at Dyett and hopes to have broader impact with New Leaders.
She leaves her post having learned many lessons to pass on.
Hold yourself accountable to the community.
McLoyd stepped in as Dyett’s founding principal during a tense time, after a hunger strike that made national headlines and resuscitated the school after the district phased it out in 2015. The district invested $14 million into the campus and programs, and Dyett reopened in 2016 as an arts high school featuring dance and music recording studios, virtual reality learning labs and more. But with distrust of the school district still running high, McLoyd said she wanted to promote healing.
At McLoyd’s first community meeting as principal, one of the former hunger strikers said to her, “You are here now — but where were you when we were fighting?” McLoyd said she had been fighting for students on the West Side as principal at Michele Clark High School.
“And I told her, if you give me a shot, I promise you, you will not be disappointed, and that this school will be something everybody in this community can be proud of,” she said.
McLoyd said she worked to earn trust by being transparent and engaging the community in decision-making, and keeping an open-door policy welcoming visitors with concerns. She also engaged hunger strike leaders, and promoted teaching about Dyett’s history, during and before the hunger strike.
“Every community stakeholder wrapped their arms around Dyett, they wrapped their arms around me, and they fought for children,” she said. “They will continue to do that regardless of if I’m here.”
“Empower your team to keep moving forward.”
A big factor in Dyett’s strong school climate, McLoyd said, has been the development of teacher leaders, including an instructional leadership team and a data analyst. She also credits the demographics and makeup of her staff.
“We have a great mix of veteran teachers and new teachers, and a staff that looks like the students for the most part, which matters in terms of reaching kids,” she said.
But McLoyd wants to be especially clear about her successful tenure: “I never did the work alone.”
“Leverage the talent of the people in the building,” she said, “the people who are there who are absolutely amazing, talented individuals who have the ability to sustain whatever progress was made.”
Forge partnerships to bring in more resources.
McLoyd brought in organizations, businesses and professionals to support Dyett. Bright Star Community Outreach provides trauma counseling to students who have had family members who were victims of gun violence. The Kaplan Institute at the Illinois Institute of Technology provides a robotics program.
Be a resource to surrounding elementary schools.
Dyett could help spread arts education to neighborhood elementary schools, McLoyd said.
“Dyett could easily become a hub or a resource to those surrounding elementary schools that may not have a lot of programs,” she said. For example, elementary students could take visual arts classes or music or dance at Dyett. But, she added, the schools could also forge partnerships with arts organizations — or the district could invest in those schools directly.
“Before tearing down fences, understand why they may have been constructed.”
McLoyd preaches a careful approach for new principals learning the lay of the land.
“Sometimes people want to put their spin and flare on things,” she said. “But keep what’s working, build upon it, and then make changes where necessary. If something is working, let it keep working.”
At Dyett, McLoyd said she’s installed several systems she hopes will survive. Every three weeks, a data analyst helps teachers examine students’ grades, and if they’re not doing well, design a plan to catch them up. In another system, to track attendance, students swipe their IDs when they enter the building, and the attendance clerk contacts parents when students are falling behind.
McLoyd, who is meticulous about documentation, hopes to leave a playbook about professional development, student orientation, marketing, and the first day of school.
“They will literally have documentation that delineates from top to bottom how we do school at Dyett and what the culture of the building actually is,” she said.
“Always take care of yourself.”
“If you’re not OK, other people are not OK,” McLoyd said. “You may think it’s not having an effect, but it will. There were times where I was physically very tired, energized by parents and kids but physically tired, and I would keep going. That’s not a long-term sustainable approach. I wouldn’t do that again. You’re a lot clearer if you’re rested.”