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Brown: Ex-Fenger principal switches role to attack same problem

Former Fenger High School Principal Liz Dozier (l) keeps this photo with twice-shot former student Jason Barrett to remind her of the young people she is trying to help with her new organization Chicago Beyond. | Provided

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The screensaver on Liz Dozier’s phone is a photo of the former Fenger High School principal with her favorite problem student Jason Barrett.

Dozier’s passionate advocacy for her students made her a star of the CNN documentary series “Chicagoland,” which focused in part on her mentoring of the talented but troubled Barrett.

Now the screensaver serves as a reminder that the work she left behind last year remains her motivation for a quite different pursuit.

Dozier has resurfaced as managing director of Chicago Beyond, a new organization offering “investments” of up to $2 million each to nonprofits with innovative ideas about how to increase opportunities for Chicago’s young people.

The reason those groups should check out ChicagoBeyond.org right away is that Dozier has a fast-approaching Friday deadline for them to send a letter of interest to compete for funding.

“We’re really just looking for great ideas,” Dozier told me last week, urging small organizations not to be intimidated by the application process.

OPINION

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Dozier, who was greeted at Fenger by the sensational beating death of student Derrion Albert just weeks into the 2009 school year, says Chicago Beyond will treat youth safety and educational attainment as “flip sides of the same coin.”

Where Dozier once was the hands-on principal patrolling the streets outside her school and visiting Barrett weekly at Cook County Jail, now she will fund others doing the up-close-and-personal work.

On a visit to Roseland two months ago, Dozier stopped in on some of her former students. At Barrett’s home, the report wasn’t good.

“He had been shot again. Summer is coming. I don’t know. It’s not good. I don’t know,” she said, her voice trailing off.

“I carry those stories with me,” she continued, back at full volume. “I’ve left Fenger, but I haven’t left Fenger. It’s still like in my heart. The lessons I learned from Fenger are really what I’m trying to support with what I’m trying to do.”

If there is a more important job in our society than that of a teacher, then it might be a school principal. Good principals who allow teachers and students to perform to their fullest are vital to making our schools work.

Losing a go-getter such as Dozier from the ranks of Chicago principals was hardly good news.

So it was reassuring to see her tap on Barrett’s photo and say: “It’s about this kid right here, what’s going to happen to him and all the other 40,000 that are just like him.”

Dozier, 38, declined to discuss why she quit CPS after six years at Fenger, saying only she “wanted to have a broader impact.” She didn’t have her new job lined up when she left.

Dozier won’t identify her funders either, describing them only as a “group of private investors interested in supporting this work.”

Although Chicago Beyond is organized as a foundation, Dozier casts it in the language of business, making “investments” instead of grants.

She says that’s because she has something larger in mind than traditional grant-making. She wants her investments to be “transformational” with the possibility of being replicated elsewhere.

Each investment must answer a larger question, such as how to attract boys to after school programs, where girls currently outnumber them 2-to-1.

A key part of Dozier’s plan is a partnership with University of Chicago’s Urban Labs to evaluate the success of programs that receive funding.

Dozier is currently seeking proposals on programs to help Chicago students complete college, having seen for herself too many drop out in the first year.

She also is looking for ideas on how to re-engage 16-to-24-year-olds such as Barrett who are neither in school nor working.

“Chicago Beyond believes that if children aren’t successful, it’s not for a lack of potential. It’s about a lack of opportunity and access. Every child has that potential,” Dozier said.

I believe that, too, and I believe Liz Dozier is someone who can help more of them attain it.

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