CHICAGO – The outcries were not enough to keep the Chicago Board of Education from voting for three underperforming elementary schools to be under new management.
The Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a contractor, will take over leadership July 1 and work on increasing academic performance beginning this fall at Walter Q. Gresham Elementary, Dvorak Technology Academy, and Ronald E. McNair Elementary School.
Some parents, however, said the schools will no longer offer certain programs their children depend on after the change in leadership, while Gresham Principal Diedrus Brown said more funding is the solution, not new management for the school.
The principals and teachers at all three schools will no longer have their jobs after this school year. AUSL plans to hire new people, but former staff members will be able to reapply for their positions, according to an AUSL representative, who said about 60 percent usually get their jobs back. They will be, however, competing with other applicants and the percentage of rehires varies from campus-to-campus, officials said.
The majority of the education board voted to “turn around” those schools, meaning they will remain neighborhood schools with the same boundaries, but have new management.
Under new management, Gresham, McNair and Dvorak will receive upgrades such as new paint, technology and furniture. And the staff will participate in professional development training sessions.
The board voted unanimously Wednesday, April 23, to turnaround Walter Q. Gresham Elementary, and 4 to 1 for Dvorak Technology Academy and Ronald E. McNair Elementary School, with Andrea Zopp voting no.
A mother of a 12-year-old, who attended the board meeting, held back tears as she questioned the board.
“Where is my son going to go?” Tonika Dockery asked the board twice. Silence greeted her and then she was told that her allotted time was up.
Dockery’s 6th grade son Antonio attends Ronald E. McNair Elementary School and she did her best to convince board members to not allow for his school to become a “turnaround” school. All attempts failed.
Dockery opposed the turnaround she said because after the change in leadership, the school will no longer offer a program that her son depends on. Antonio is what doctors call a Trained Mental Handicap and after contacting AUSL, Dockery said she learned that the TMH program will disappear beginning this fall. There are no other close by options in her West Side neighborhood, she said.
“I’ll homeschool him before I let him go all the way up north, on two, three hour bus rides,” she said.
Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said in a statement after the vote that last Wednesday’s “hostile takeover of three of our neighborhood school communities by the mayor’s handpicked Board of Education makes it quite clear that there is a war on older, African-American teachers and administrators, as well as the school communities in which they serve.”
The recommendation for the nonprofit to turnaround the schools, all with Level 3 ratings, the worst in the district, came from CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett. It was first announced in March. Shortly after, Chicago Public Schools invited the communities of Austin, Gresham and North Lawndale to participate in a series of meetings. CPS took into consideration the feedback that was gathered from two of the meetings and a public hearing.
“We do not take a decision to bring systemic change to a school lightly, but when change is in the best interest of our students, we will not waver,” said Byrd-Bennett in a news release.
“We will continue to work with these school communities to ensure a smooth transition that will put these students on a path to be 100 percent college-ready, and 100 percent college-bound,” she said.
Even with the opportunity for the public to express their opinion on the matter, many felt as if their words held no power.
“I don’t have a say, I have a voice, but I don’t have a voice because it don’t matter,” Dockery said.
She said her voice did not matter, but some barely got the chance to speak. Clarence George, a parent of a Gresham student and pastor of Upon This Rock Outreach Ministry, was cut off before his allocated time was finished. Four security guards approached him and one moved the microphone from his mouth after he told Byrd-Bennett that she can be “turned around.”
“Our mayor hired Mr. [Jean-Claude] Brizard and fired him, turned him around and the tax payers had to pay that money to Mr. Brizard for his contract and then he turned around and hired Barbara Byrd-Bennett for the same contract,” George told the Defender.
“If he could turn Mr. Brizard around, what makes Barbara Byrd-Bennett think he won’t turn her around? He’s getting ready to get rid of her because we’re getting ready to get rid of him; he’s a one-term mayor.”
Principal Diedrus Brown addressed the board, opposing the turnover at Gresham. Her voice raised as the cheers and claps from audience members almost drowned out her words.
“You destabilized our schools for the past two years by taking money away,” she said.
More funding is the solution, Brown said, because the school has always done drastically better when they receive more.
“Any principal knows that scores go up and down,” she said. “You don’t reduce students to a statistic. It’s the heart of the child you’re dealing with and if you’re allowing your soul to destroy the heart of a child, I say God bless you. Don’t be a good person doing the devil’s work,” she said before walking away.
Angela Gordon, a parent of three children at Dvorak and the Local School Council chairwoman, agreed. Gordon also said that more funding is the answer, not new teachers.
“Allow us to turn ourselves around, give us [the] resources that AUSL has,” Gordon said.
Not everyone opposed AUSL taking over the schools.
Marlon Gosa’s nine year-old son attends Sherman School of Excellence, a public school that is now managed by AUSL. Gosa said he is pleased with the changes their leadership brought like more tutors and athletic programs.
AUSL coordinator Carla Rubalcava said their schools, which currently are 29, only receive $300,000 from CPS the first year, to fund professional development for staff. CPS annually gives AUSL $420 per student, but only for the first five years. They receive the rest of their funding through fundraising efforts and partnerships with vendors.