Located on the Near West Side, Robert Nathaniel Dett Elementary’s enrollment has been the victim of both gentrification, the removal of public housing, and students siphoned off to charter schools. Although Dett is not technically closing, the building will close, and Dett students and staff will be relocated to Herbert school and merged with Herbert’s student body.
“We are in the shadow of the United Center (where the Chicago Bulls and Hawks play) and there are rumors of a massive expansion. Housing won’t be for working families. The wealthy want this area.” —Willie Williamson, Herbert community member
Dett lost students when the Henry Horner public housing projects were demolished. The Horner Homes were the setting of Alex Kotlowitz’s book There Are No Children Here.
“According to the CHA’s April 2011 Relocation Study, out of 699 Henry Horner families who had the right to return, 338 families moved to either Westhaven Park or Village of Westhaven. Fourteen more families live elsewhere in the Near West Side community area, and 55 families live in the nearby East Garfield Park community area. Five families live in the Near South Side. The rest settled in poor or working class communities on the West Side, and, to the lesser extent, the South Side.”
And they lost students more recently when a nearby homeless shelter was relocated. The school’s low-income percentage has dropped from 99% in the 2010-2011 school year to just 73% this year, showing that poorest students were the ones displaced. Nonetheless, Dett’s homeless population was still 25% as of this February.
Despite all this upheaval, according to the University of Chicago Consortium on School Research, Dett is well-organized for improvement. They are strong in all categories of the 5 Essentials, and schools strong on three or more of these essentials are 10 times more likely to improve student learning than schools weak in three or more.
“[T]his is my son Brendon Totin. He attends one of the best high schools in the city, Chicago Tech Academy; but he couldn’t have done it without the education he received at Robert Nathaniel Dett Elementary School. My son has autism, and they gave him the foundation to overcome the limitations of his autism, so he could go to one of the best high schools in the city, so he can be a success.” —Christina Totin, Dett parent
In addition, Dett has many partnerships in the arts and receives grants from numerous outside funders:
“We have partnered with the MCA, the AET of Chicago, Marven Arts Center, Hyde Park Arts Center. We travel there frequently, once a month or [more]. I’ve gotten thousands and thousands of money from Chicago Foundation for Education, the Oppenheimer, Donors Choose, Creative Pitch, Chicago Sinfonietta, Ravinia, Arcelor Mittal Steel Company, and I just want to say we don’t have — that did not come from CPS. That is all grant money.” –Allison Beaulieu, National Board-Certified Teacher at Dett for 6 years
Academically, Dett’s ISAT scores have been on a steady upward trajectory, and they haven’t been on probation for 8 years. Their meet-exceed percentage is more than 10 percentage points higher than would be expected from their demographic makeup—in the top 50 in the city on this measurement. Dett was a Level 1 school last year and for several years, but because the ISAT meets-exceed percentage dropped 3 points, they became Level 2 and eligible for closing.
According to teacher Allison Beaulieu, the drop in scores at Dett was due to a decrease in teaching staff, which resulted in split (multi-grade) classrooms for all grades K-8. This year, however, they acquired two new teachers, and now fewer grades are split.
“My students love how art makes them feel. They can express themselves, have no problems trying out new things, and are fantastic people with lots of room to grow.” —Allison Beaulieu
The only stretch of time that Dett has been on probation during the last 16 years was after the disruption of being a receiving school. In fall of 2001, Dett received students from Dodge. Then in the fall of 2003, Dett received students from Suder after it was converted to a Montessori magnet school.
In the bitterest of ironies, Dett was lauded for its academic success just at the start of that previous period of destabilization by one of the chief actors in that destabilization, himself:
“Teachers and principals working collaboratively have made solid progress in schools like McCosh, Beethoven, Dett and Washington Irving.” —Martin J. Koldyke, Chairman, Academy for Urban School Leadership, Founder, Golden Apple Foundation