CHICAGO -- Dyett High School athletic director Clarence Smith wrote an anguished and impassioned personal letter detailing the severe disadvantages his students and athletes encounter in their daily travails.
What they needed, the coach said, was a chance.
His words struck gold with executives of the ESPN series, “RISE UP Powered by EAS.” In an emotional public announcement inside the school’s gymnasium Friday morning, principal Robert McMiller announced Dyett has been selected as a featured school on the program.
“We’ve won,” he said to the cheering throngs.
In concert with the Chicago Bulls’ community outreach program, a Chicago-area construction firm and a New Orleans architectural concern, RISE UP is set to help renovate and refurbish the school’s athletic facilities.
The frenzied response inside the gym was palpable.
“Now we can finally fix the floor,” said Kendall Cox, a junior on the basketball team. “There’s no grip.”
The timing could not have been better. Chicago Public Schools are hampered by multi-million dollar budget deficits. Newly elected mayor Rahm Emanuel has already warned of severe budget cuts, teacher layoffs and a fiscal austerity program.
“The school has probably not been freshly painted in probably 20 or even 30 years,” said McMiller.
Located in the gritty and roughhewn Washington Park neighborhood, Dyett became a fully fledged high school in 1999. Since its founding, the school has been devastated by gang violence. When McMiller took over the principal position in February of 2009, the situation was bleak.
“In my first 18 months on the job, I attended the funerals of three students,” he said.
Enrollment has declined to just 400 students. He hopes the publicity generated by the ESPN program will alter the very culture of the school.
“I think it will help draw the type of student and student-athletes that we want in the building. We have to do our part in terms of working very hard in raising the achievement level across the school. We can’t do that unless we have an environment of peace,” said McMiller.
Smith has sometimes found it difficult to maintain his naturally optimistic look.
“We have good kids here,” he said. “We’ve had some kids that were good enough to play in college, but we didn’t have the video equipment, for instance, to send out tapes to colleges and recruiters.”
The show’s co-hosts, Chris Spielman, the former NFL linebacker and current ESPN college football analyst, and Deanne Bell, a college soccer player who’s a trained mechanical engineer, were present for the announcement. Both spoke eloquently about the social and personal dividends.
“This is not about highlighting the star basketball player,” said Bell. “For me personally, sports were a crucial way of finding balance in my life, and that’s what we want to offer these kids.”
It is not a gift horse they are looking in the mouth.
“This is like somebody has handed us a gold trophy,” said Jeremy Williams, a football player who just completed his junior year. “Believe me, we’re not going to mess it up.”
About RISE UP: "RISE UP: New Orleans" debuted in September 2010 on ESPN. The documentary chronicled the transformation of the athletic facilities of Eleanor McMain Secondary School in New Orleans. McMain was the first public school to re-open after Hurricane Katrina, nearly four months after the storm devastated the city in August 2005. Rats ran around the gym, equipment was broken and the locker rooms had no showers. That was before a two-week makeover made possible by contractors and local businesses. Read the story and watch videos of the transformation.