1938 – 2006
“Educator challenged inequity of resources in Chicago schools”
by Jon Yates, Chicago Tribune
Alfred Hess Jr. was ordained as a Methodist minister but couldn’t stop thinking he could help more people if he left his small congregation in Shelburne Falls, Massachusetts. So he resigned from his church and moved his family to Chicago in 1966. In the years that followed, he left an indelible imprint on the city’s
A social activist, devoted family man and skilled researcher, Mr. Hess directed the Chicago Panel on School Policy for 13 years and was one of the architects of the Chicago School Reform Act of 1988. Much of his research was used to champion the cause of the city’s poorest children–students who, he showed, were not being properly served.
“I think he was really driven by a sense of social justice, that there was so much unfairness in society and that it was being pushed under the rug,” said John Ayers, a friend and colleague and the former executive director of Leadership for Quality Education.
“Every job he took, every project he worked on, was informed by that sense hat he needed to help,” said his son, Randy.
“Even when he was doing things that were completely secular, he had that sense of the ministry. He wasn’t proselytizing. He really thought his role was to help people.”
Mr. Hess, who was born in Trenton, N.J., graduated from the College of Wooster in Ohio in 1959, then Boston University School of Theology three years later. He came to Chicago to work for the Institute of Cultural Affairs, through which he traveled the world working on community development projects.
He received a doctorate in education at Northwestern University in 1980 and quickly made an impact on the city’s educational landscape through his research. “He could take the driest stinking data in the world and say, `This is what it means,'” said his wife, Mary. “He found ways to turn data into action.”
His research showed the dropout rate in Chicago’s schools was much higher than previously stated, that funding was inequitable to poor students and that teaching in some of the city’s high schools was woefully inadequate. “He’s one of the founding educators of the school reform movement in the late 1980s. He and [others] not only sounded the alarm about the failures in the school system, but he was one of the architects of the reform movement,” said Paul Vallas, former chief executive officer of the Chicago Public
Schools. “He was a great researcher and was probably one the nicest individuals I’ve ever met.” Vallas said Mr. Hess’ research helped guide his tenure at the Chicago Public Schools. “He was a very inspiring guy,” Vallas said. “He’ll achieve a certain immortality through his work.”
Mr. Hess helped form the Consortium on Chicago Public School Research and went back to Northwestern to teach in 1996. His son said Mr. Hess was driven to help people but never missed his
children’s soccer games or ballet performances. “He was fun and gregarious,” his son said. “He was smart so he could employ
wit as well.”
Besides his son and wife, survivors include his daughter, Sarah; and five sisters, Lou Hardwick, Jane Clark, Bobbie Gibbs, Dottie Ambler and Betty.