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In Wake of Hunger Strike, Dyett’s Principal Promises Tech That Goes Beyond PowerPoint

A year after a month-long hunger strike prevented its closure, Bronzeville’s Walter H. Dyett High School of the Arts will open this fall with a new focus and a new principal, Beulah McLoyd.

Prior to this assignment, McLoyd was a principal at Michele Clark Magnet High School in the Austin neighborhood and an assistant principal at Gage Park High School. Chicago checked in with her to see about preparations at Dyett, where about 500 students have applied to be in the inaugural freshman class of 150.

The community wanted a STEM school with a focus on green technologies but got an arts school instead. How do you respond to critics who question why a new South Side high school will focus on singing and dancing and not science?

McLoyd

A large part of the community was open to the program; it’s the only open-enrollment art program on the South Side. My second point is, in addition to the arts focus, we have a robust, comprehensive program that is in addition to having kids take digital media [classes], the visual arts pathway, a theater pathway, a dance pathway or a music pathway. It’s not just singing and dancing. When people say the community didn’t want it, there are some who didn’t want it and a lot who did.

What does “a robust, comprehensive program” mean?

They’ll be able to take five years of math in four years. They’ll have advanced placement options on the freshman level. The only difference [between us and other schools] is that we offer kids art every year, and in most schools they only take art for two years.

It’s not that we’re throwing out math and science, but we’re adding to that in a way that engages kids because we all know that given the opportunity to explore creativity, we increase the chances that they’ll do better in math and science.

You have the arts covered, but what about technology?

The goal is to make sure all the kids in the building have computer science classes independent of digital media. They’ll learn coding and networking. The digital media portion is the creative side of technology. For example if we were to look at [Beyonce’s] “Flawless” cover, she has the pink “Flawless” on top of the black background. She worked with her digital media folks to come up with that visual. It’s the creative side of the tech world. The creative side of everything we see. We don’t want to have a technology course that focuses on how do you create a PowerPoint. Those are kind of antiquated skills.

Was a hunger strike the right way to get a school to stay open?

That’s a good question, and I can’t speak to whether it’s the right way or the wrong way. I’ve spoken to Jitu [Brown, a local organizer.] I value their voice and everybody else’s in the community.

How are the grounds? Super old?

It’s pretty modern and we’re doing huge renovations. We’re changing the interior to support the arts focus. The school is getting new dance studios, a black box theater where kids can perform their plays, new visual arts studios. The community innovation lab, which doesn’t get a lot of attention right now? We want it to become a hub for the community. The blueprints are public knowledge at this point.

How are you attracting teachers?

Sometimes people lose jobs if they are arts teachers. They’re actually beating the doors down.

Will the teachers strike?

Honestly I haven’t thought about that. I’m focused on being prepared to open school in September. When or if that happens we’ll deal with the consequences of that.

Are you concerned about school integration?

Am I concerned about it? In what way?

In a racial way.

No, I’m not concerned about it. If it’s an integrated community, that’s great. If it’s primarily an African American student body, that’s great, too. At Gage Park it was 60 percent Latino and 40 percent African American, and that changed over time, but I think diversity offers a great opportunity for kids to learn about each other.

Will admission include a neighborhood quota?

No quotas.

How’d you get so many applicants?

I’m personally taking to parents and students. The personal touch helps. I get Facebook inquiries every day. We have eight to nine billboards in the Bronzeville area that are introducing Dyett.

You live nearby, right?

Yes.

Will you walk to work, like every principal in every movie about a born-again school?

[Laughter] You know, the winters get really cold sometimes, so I may have to hop in the car to get there.

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