Kadner: Blondean Davis fights for education
By Phil Kadner firstname.lastname@example.org November 4, 2013 10:20PM
Southland College Prep Charter High School CEO Blondean Davis (center, pointing) leads members of the Illinois State Board of Education on a tour of the school. | Supplied Photo
Updated: December 6, 2013 6:26AM
Blondean Davis created the first charter high school in the south suburbs, but she won’t hesitate to tell you she’s a staunch advocate of the traditional public school system.
Students at Southland Charter Prep in Richton Park scored 17 percentage points higher than students from Rich Township High School District 227, with which Southland Prep shares its enrollment base.
But Davis will tell you she is not part of any campaign to create more charter schools in Illinois.
She is quite simply a champion of students; a proponent of education.
Davis is school superintendent of Matteson Elementary School District 162, which is mostly black and largely poor.
Yet, for years her students outperformed those in similar school districts on standardized achievement tests.
But when those students graduated and went on to high schools, their tests scores dropped.
That’s when Davis, her school board, local political leaders and parents decided to create a charter high school, a battle that erupted in lawsuits and contentions that Davis was undermining the local high school system by drawing state funding away from it.
Davis, a top deputy under former Chicago Public Schools CEO Paul Vallas when she left for Matteson in 2002, continues running the local elementary school districts while acting as the volunteer CEO of Southland Charter Prep.
She will quickly explain to anyone willing to listen that her duties go far beyond those of the traditional school superintendent.
“I’ve become a fundraiser,” she told me, “but I’m afraid I’m not very good at it.”
In addition to raising private money to supplement state funding, she’s raising college scholarship money for her students.
“I’ve told my parents and our children that if you give me a 3.30 grade-point average and a 23 on the ACT, we will get you an 80 percent scholarship.
“Listen, our lower-income families are struggling. They can’t afford college for their children.
“And it’s not enough to give children an education that qualifies them to get into a college, we have to make sure that once they do that we make sure the college education is available to them.
“That’s our responsibility.”
Davis believes she has secured enough commitments to do that as Southland Prep prepares to graduate its first class of seniors.
As for the graduation ceremony, Davis is preparing to finance the entire thing.
“We’re going to hold the graduation ceremony at the Harris Theater (a 1,525-seat theater for the performing arts located along the northern edge Millennium Park in Chicago),” Davis said.
“We will pay for the caps and gowns, the reception, everything.
“I told our parents, ‘You worry about the prom, we’ll take care of the graduation.’ ”
Davis admits she’s a little short of her $32,000 target (I’m at $26,000) but I’m really looking for one big check so we can not only pay for the graduation, but announce a $5,000 scholarship for one of our students.”
But if you think Davis is focused primarily on her charter school and its success, she will sharply, but politely, correct you.
Arcadia Elementary in Olympia Fields won a national award this year from the Education Trust.
The “Dispelling the Myth” Award was created to honor educators who make schools “interesting and engaging” for their students and “places where teachers want to teach.”
Arcadia, a K-4th school, was cited for “helping just about all students meet state reading and math stands” by building classroom rosters to ensure a mixture of students who can work well together and an extensive volunteer program,.
“And the faculty is predominately white,” volunteered Davis, who is black.
I asked Davis why she mentioned the racial makeup of the faculty.
“Because that’s become an issue in a neighboring district where people are blaming low test scores on the white faculty,” Davis said. “I reject race as a determining factor in education, whether it’s students or staff.
“We have developed too many false stereotypes over time.”
Davis certainly doesn’t fit neatly into anyone’s mold.
Her charter school teachers are non-union and its flexible rules allow her to run a school day that starts at 8 a.m. and ends at 5 p.m.
She has special classes in math and science with a ratio of one teacher to four students.
“We’ve found out that our students were often falling behind in math and science because they didn’t get the special instruction they needed at an early age and were passed on,” Davis said.
“In large classrooms, students often aren’t comfortable saying they don’t understand something and teachers often can’t spot them in a class with 19 or 20 other children.
“In a class with four children, each teacher knows if a student understands what he is being taught and the student gets to know that the teacher is there to help them learn.”
But Davis said her union teachers in the elementary schools are now participating in planning sessions with the non-union members, creating a cohesive environment where everyone works together for the betterment of the students.
“I haven’t had a complaint or seen a problem,” Davis said. “We’re one family. Administrators, teachers, parents and students.
“But we also understand that the Bill Cosby two-parent home is gone. And we have to live in that world.”
So two weeks before starting Southland College Prep, incoming students are taught about manners, respect for others, the importance of a first impression.
And an administrator works full time at the high school to stop problems before they occur.
“If you have to discipline a student,” Davis said, “you’ve already failed that student.”
Southland Prep students wear uniforms, blazers, ties, dress pants.
“The impression you make on people matters,” Davis said. “The way you look. The way you speak.
“I never wanted a charter school. It was something we had to do. I believe you do whatever it takes to educate the children.
“That’s our responsibility. It’s our promise to every child.”