Dr. Cortez McCoy, a proud native of the south side of Chicago, is a product of CPS and has been in the educational field for fifteen years. Dr. McCoy has dedicated his career to Chicago’s children and their families. Dr. McCoy has been a substitute teacher, teacher, assistant dean, and assistant principal in the public and charter school sectors. Dr. McCoy is currently the principal of Walter H. Dyett High School for the Arts, where he has worked for the past two years. Dr. McCoy is also the school’s first contract principal. Last year was the school’s first graduating class since the reform. The Class of 2020 accumulated over four million dollars in scholarships and had a 98% graduation rate.
Dr. McCoy recently completed his doctorate in the Urban Educational Leadership Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago and was honored as the 2021 Chicago Defender “Men of Excellence.”
Tammy Gibson: What was your first educational job, and what sparked your interest in the field?
Dr. Cortez McCoy: I went to school for business management at Illinois State University. I had a dream of starting my own recording label. I was a rapper as well. That was one of my dreams. I started as a substitute teacher and enjoyed teaching students, being a role model and servant. I primarily worked at elementary schools on the south side of Chicago. A lot of students gravitated towards me. They wanted me to go back to school and believed I would be a great teacher. So I went back to school and got my Master’s Degree in the Art of Teaching from Chicago State University. That started my educational journey.
I had a mentor who was a principal. He believed I would be great at teaching, being a role model, and being an influencer in the community. Seeing the student’s eyes light up when I teach and being in the classroom made me want to continue the journey as an educator.
TG: When the pandemic happened, how much work was it moving classes online and the students adapting to learning remotely?
CM: It was a challenge and something we couldn’t predict. When we got the news that it was a pandemic and a virus that we didn’t know much about, we had to shut down. We didn’t know what direction education was going to go in. Then, I started hearing about schools going into remote space. When CPS gave us more guidance on going into remote learning, we went full throttle from there. I have a great administrative team, teachers, and staff. Once we got the guidance, we started thinking about how we were going to plan for remote learning.
One of the biggest things that were solid for us was a lot of teachers were already using Google Suite. So when we went into remote learning, it wasn’t a huge adjustment as far as the instructional piece. However, having the students log on virtually was something different.
We had to think about how we would make sure students remain engaged in school, provide support to students amid a pandemic, and ensure our communication is going out consistently. We discussed all of that in our remote learning plan. We also engaged parents in the process. They gave input on different things we could do. From that, we were able to create a plan that addressed all those various components. It was difficult as far as thinking about how we keep the stakeholders engaged but as far as utilizing the platforms, we were lucky that we were already ahead of the game because we had teachers that were already using technology.
We came up with different ways to engage with the students virtually. We had virtual parties, escape rooms, Halloween, and Valentine’s Day drive-thrus. It was about being creative and keeping everyone engaged in the community.
TG: The job of a principal can be difficult. Did you feel the pandemic made you stronger than before to lead?
CM: Being a principal is already a difficult job. When you add a pandemic, it intensifies my role as a principal. It taught me how to be flexible, creative, and have grit. A lot was going on with the pandemic that affected the students, parents, staff, and me. These situations make you dig deeper and find something within yourself to keep going despite what may be going on in the world. The flexibility, creativity, and the ability to collaborate with others and receive input enhanced my leadership.
TG: What steps have you taken to create safety measures for faculty, staff, and students this school year during the pandemic?
CM: We started by making sure that we were very clear with the expectations around COVID-19. Students understood the importance of wearing a mask, emailing out communications, and having student town hall meetings at the beginning of the school year to make sure they understood why it was essential to wear a mask and practice social distancing. We wanted the students to know that we already had a plan in place and that they were safe.
TG: How were teachers continuing to go above and beyond to keep students engaged and learning during the pandemic?
CM: Our teachers went above and beyond during the pandemic. We provided training to the teachers and staff to make sure they were equipped and trying different things as it related to technology. The teachers were willing to try things that may have taken them out of their comfort zone, staying in communication with parents to check in and give updates related to the students. The teachers overextended themselves making those extra phone calls and responding to emails to ensure the student remained engaged.
TG: What did you do to maintain the staff and teacher morale during the pandemic?
CM: It was challenging. We worked with different companies. One of them was Mindful Practices, where they provided workshops and tools surrounding being mindful of our own needs. Taking deep breaths and yoga techniques were presented to the teachers virtually. We also had check-in forms that teachers could fill out saying how they were feeling, and we provided support by giving them a call or providing external support to reach out to different mental health hotlines. When the world started to open up, we had a courtyard BBQ, abiding by the COVID-19 guidelines. Bringing the teachers and staff together was important and letting them know we are all in this together and supporting and providing different resources.
TG: How do you handle discipline when students get into trouble?
CM: We explain our student expectations and meet with them to explain why it is important. We believe in restorative justice practices, which is to restore the relationship, whether that is between students, staff, or any adult that are in the building. For example, when there is conflict amongst students, we do a peace circle. The peace circle is an opportunity to hear both sides and hopefully come to a solution with a trained mediator.
TG: As the principal, how do you get to know the students?
CM: One of the key things with the students is just talking with them. When you have the opportunity to walk the hallways, say hello to the students, introduce yourself and let them know that they can introduce themselves to me. It is vital to have a strong relationship with students, be willing to talk with them and let them know I have an open-door policy. I try to welcome the students and show that I am interested in them and their well-being. In addition, we have a student government and student voice committee to voice their concerns and things they would like to see in the school building.
This school year, I am teaching a class for young black men who are in their senior year interested in going into education. It’s a dual credit course that was created through the Thrive Program that the Obama Alliance sponsored. The program is called My Brother’s Keeper that focuses on the shortage of black men in education.
TG: What kind of role model do you want to be to your students, especially young boys?
CM: I want them to know it is cool to be smart, educated, and go to school. I want them to aspire and dream one day to go to school, get a degree and influence the next generation. They don’t have to dim their light. They can rise above their circumstances or situations.
TG: What is the most rewarding part of being a principal?
CM: What is rewarding for me is seeing the positive influences you can have on students years later. When I started in education as a substitute teacher, I got a chance to see some of the students I had and see them grow into adults with families and knowing that I was a part of their lives and they remember me. I love being a principal and see the impact I have on the current generation and future generations to come.
Tammy Gibson is a black history traveler and author. Find her on social media @SankofaTravel