Show of strength no act for Fenger principal: Brown

Written By By Mark Brown Posted: 03/16/2014, 02:34am
Array A quote on Fenger High School Principal Elizabeth Dozier's desk. Brian Jackson/Chicago Sun Times

Elizabeth Dozier’s unfamiliar face graces a billboard overlooking River North, sandwiched between the mugs of Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Police Supt. Garry McCarthy like images on Mount Rushmore.

These are the “strong” leaders CNN says a great city needs.

But if you’ve watched the network’s new “Chicagoland” series, then you know Dozier, the principal at Fenger High School, also is the strong character a successful television show needs.

Whether patrolling Fenger’s hallways and surrounding streets, counseling a problem student with “tough love” or using her contacts to get a culinary novice into a Grant Achatz restaurant, Dozier is shown as a determined and savvy fighter for her kids, strong-willed yet soft-hearted.

She’s the saving grace of the show — the one truly likeable central character for whom you can root.

The first two episodes surely have left viewers wanting to know more about Dozier, and future installments will oblige — even exploring her remarkable back story as the daughter of a white Catholic nun and an African-American prison inmate.

More on that in a minute.

To those of us who have trekked down to Roseland in recent years to witness the successes Dozier and her team have achieved at Fenger, the national attention is well deserved. That’s why I returned to Fenger this week to interview her.

She seemed wearier than her bubbly norm, most likely because she was fighting a cold that reduced her voice to a hoarse whisper.

But this also is a difficult period at Fenger, perhaps the toughest since Dozier’s first year in 2009 when, just weeks into the start of classes, student Derrion Albert was beaten to death on his way home from school.

That also was the first year Fenger received a $1.6 million annual federal grant that provided enough resources not only to help restore order but to give students a fighting chance at success.

Now, it’s Fenger’s first year without the federal money, and coupled with other CPS cuts, there’s a strain Dozier doesn’t try to hide.

“It stresses the building out. I think everyone is feeling it this year,” said Dozier, who has tried to minimize the impact on students by doubling up duties for faculty and staff.

But as everyone learns who tries to do more with less, there are limits. An average class size of 20 has jumped to 30, a huge difference for a student body that needs help with so much more than understanding the homework.

Meanwhile, Fenger’s enrollment has dropped from 1,000 students five years ago to just 400 as it faces pressure from an influx of new charter schools in the neighborhood.

Dozier hopes the TV show will help people “understand just how great our school really is” — and other neighborhood schools as well.

To maintain Fenger’s success, she wants to leverage interest in “Chicagoland” into fundraising opportunities to replace some of the lost funds. Dozier directs would-be donors to

The calm Dozier established at Fenger has much to do with her philosophy of “restorative justice” that emphasizes nurturing problem students over punishment.

“Chicagoland” hints at the origins of that approach in her upbringing, one few could have guessed.

Dozier’s mother, a Dominican nun from Burbank, met her father while ministering to prisoners at Cook County Jail. They fell in love and kept up the relationship after he was sent to state prison, she said.

Although CNN leaves this part to the imagination, Dozier confirms she was conceived while her father was incarcerated.

After she became pregnant, Dozier’s mother left the convent where she had spent the previous 20 years and became a Catholic schoolteacher.

Dozier’s mother and father got married while he was in prison, and he came to live with the family after his release when Dozier was 5. Her parents split when she was 13, and for a time, her father was homeless. But Dozier said she keeps in touch with him.

“He’s actually a very supportive and understanding person. He’s probably one of the nicest people you’ll ever meet,” she told me.

Dozier, 36, grew up in Crestwood, attended Catholic grammar schools in the city and graduated from Seton Academy.

Her undergraduate college degree was in business, but Dozier was bored by business and quit to become a teacher. Her mother “vehemently” objected.

“Like a good daughter, I did exactly the opposite of what she said,” Dozier said in the self-deprecating manner viewers will recognize.

Dozier said her background never struck her as unusual until reflecting on it recently. Now, she recognizes it’s “probably what led me to do some of the work here.”

“If you go through different things in your own life, it makes you more understanding in wanting to reach out and support another person,” Dozier said.

No question: Dozier is someone who deserves support.

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