CHATHAM — It was chance, or perhaps serendipity, that led Terrycita Perry back to the elementary school that shaped her life as a kid growing up in Chatham.
She doesn’t quite remember what brought her back to where she started, but she does recall the sense of pride and purpose that came over her as she walked the halls, reacquainting herself.
That sense of pride and purpose has remained ever-present in the work she does as principal of Arthur Dixon Elementary, 8306 S. St. Lawrence Ave., a Level 1+ neighborhood school.
It’s been quite the journey for Perry, who began at the school as a teacher in the early aughts, when she wasn’t sure if she was ready to step up and lead. Now, nearly five years after she took over the Dixon’s top post, she’s one of six finalists in the running for the 2020 Golden Apple Award for Excellence in Leadership.
“I’d been there for six and a half years and my principal had started this new program where we had to be resource teachers. I was so upset with her that I cried in the bathroom,” recalled Perry, who started as a special education teacher at Dixon. “I was worried that no one would take care of my babies like I did, that the teachers wouldn’t know what they were doing. Now I had a mission.”
Perry observed how the general education teachers engaged their new charges, ensuring every student had books and other necessary classroom materials. While the change allowed her to become a more vocal advocate, it also gave her a broader view of the system. She was able to assess what worked and what didn’t, and eventually her boss took notice, urging her to consider starting the principal certification process.
Perry did, passing the required tests easily. She enrolled in a doctorate program at the University of Illinois at Chicago, which offered a principal internship. Still, she remained apprehensive about the idea of being in charge.
“I was so nervous. The principal I had was very supportive, and very protective. I wasn’t yet 30, I was insecure, I didn’t know who I was, and I had all these veteran teachers to lead, teachers who had been here for years,” Perry remembered. “But I had a really supportive principal. After a while, they saw my work, and they were like, ‘OK.’
“I wasn’t apologetic about my success. People don’t know where I started from as a kid, so I’d been working on this for a long time. To them, it’s like, ‘Oh, she’s only been here for six or seven years.’ For me, it was a lifetime.”
Perry spent 10 years as assistant principal before stepping into her current role in 2015. She credits her mentors, women like Joan Crisler and Sharon Dale — two former Dixon principals — with giving her the encouragement she needed to step up.
“I wouldn’t be here without them,” said Perry, a Chicago State University alumna. “I learned so much from Sharon Dale. When she retired, I didn’t want her to leave, but she said it was time.”
After all, Dixon was in good hands and had been for years. The school had made remarkable strides — a 2012 documentary explored how the South Side school influenced its 600 students through its curated Black art collection, and in 2015, it became one of the top-ranked schools in the Chicago Public School system.
And last month, 9-year-old Dixon student Mia Roberts won the city’s first Martin Luther King Jr. Oratory Competition.
Dixon’s success lies in its fearless student body, its compassionate, dedicated staff, and the parents who do what they can to support, Perry said.
“We make sure students have a voice here. Growing up, you’re told to be quiet, to not ask questions. Here, they aren’t afraid to tell us what they want,” said Perry, who was selected as a Cahn fellow last June. “Last year, the students revived Beta Club and had been meeting for months before coming to us about it. There was another student, an eighth grader who wrote me a letter asking why we didn’t have a Black History Month assembly and offered to organize it. And she did everything, from choosing the talent to printing the program.
“That’s what makes Dixon special.”
Perry and other Golden Apple Award finalists will be honored at a gala Feb. 22 at the Q Center in St. Charles.
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