Embracing Culture and Empowering Students: One School’s Recipe for Success

Note from The Fund team: This week, Dixon Elementary, a Chicago Public School led by Principal Terrycita Perry, was recognized as one of only two Chicago public schools to receive a perfect School Quality Rating Policy score. We are humbled to know, learn from and work with Principal Perry, and wanted to take this opportunity to offer our heartfelt congratulations on this incredible accomplishment and to share more about the work she’s done to achieve these results.

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Eleven years before Terrycita Perry was the principal, she was a student at Arthur Dixon Elementary School. “I grew up right here in Chatam,” Terrycita shared, “and for me, the best thing about being back at Dixon is that my students can see something real, someone who grew up on the South Side, who went to the same school and who now is successful.” Terrycita’s own principal, Joan Crystler, recognized this passion in her at a young age and mentored Terrycita in her first years as a teacher. Now Terrycita is leading the charge, ensuring that Dixon’s students are proud of where they come from.

One way Terrycita celebrates her students is through the annual Cultural Connection fair, a two-day event showcasing African and African-American entrepreneurs and artists from across the country. Her student population is 100 percent African-American, and Terrycita says “that is an important part of Dixon’s school culture.” Particularly for a generation inundated with negative representations of Chicago, Terrycita has a mission of inspiring her young students with cultural pride and positivity.

“The idea behind Cultural Connection blossomed from an entrepreneur class 20 years ago,” Terrycita recalled. “One teacher wanted to show the kids successful African-American leaders, to show them that there was something different out there.” The event draws hundreds of families and community members each spring. It brings together over 65 different vendors from across the nation to celebrate African and African-American success. “We want to show our kids that they are descendants of kings and queens – that they are worthy, beautiful and deserve to get an equitable education.”

Throughout the year the hallways at Dixon remain decked out with art from the Cultural Connection show. “Music Lane,” the hallway leading to the auditorium, is filled with beautiful depictions of African-American music and musicians. “Gym Lane,” the hallway by the gymnasium, is covered with the likeness of famous African-American sports champions. When new students enroll at Dixon, past students tell them to be careful not to touch or ruin the art. “My children take pride in their school and surroundings,” Terrycita said. “They are so excited to have this kind of community that embraces their culture and displays beautiful art.”

Last year, Terrycita was contacted by filmmaker Pamela Sherrod Anderson who created a documentary about Cultural Connection. Highlighting the history of the fair and the artwork in the school, Pamela showed the importance of establishing a proud culture for student success. This is the type of positivity that Terrycita hopes to see in the narratives about the surrounding community. Amidst the negativity in the media about Chicago’s South Side schools, Terrycita works hard to create “a space that covers and protects our children, no matter what is happening in the world, we need to keep an eye on the children and that is the bottom line.” She creates a haven for students to see themselves and their culture reflected through beauty.

To learn more about Terrycita’s journey at Dixon, watch this video feature that was made possible by the generous support of our partners at William Blair.

Principal Terrycita Perry | Dixon Elementary from Chicago Public Education Fund on Vimeo.