CHICAGO—As the school year has come to an end, there is a chance that 292 teachers and staff will be looking for new work in the coming weeks since the Chicago Board of Education voted in April to change leadership for three underperforming schools.
The Chicago Public Schools hired a nonprofit management company earlier this year to bring in all new teachers, principals and other staff at Dvorak Technology Academy, Ronald E. McNair Elementary School and Walter Q. Gresham Elementary. The Academy for Urban School Leadership, or AUSL, manages 29 other Chicago neighborhood schools. Dvorak, McNair and Gresham are slated to become turnaround schools after the board decided that the current staff was not doing enough. This means they will remain neighborhood schools with the same boundaries, but have new management.
Gresham’s principal, Diedrus Brown, has refused to give up without a fight since day one, saying she fears no one but God. She asked the board members to reconsider its decision to let go of its entire staff, but despite all of her effort, the answer is still the same.
“When you get public dollars it should be public schools, don’t try to privatize public schools,” Brown said.
Brown and parents from the local school council, who call themselves “Gresham Parents, Students and Community United for Change” invited the board to a meeting June 3 to hear their argument for keeping its current teachers and staff. Former staff members at all three schools will be able to reapply for their positions, according to an AUSL representative, who said about 60 percent usually get their jobs back.
CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett wrote President David Vitale a letter recommending that he and the rest of the board reconsider the decision to turnaround Gresham. After much thought, AUSL will still take over the school in the fall.
Meanwhile, another school is set to close its doors completely. Students will not be returning to Walter H. Dyett High School on the South Side after the 2014-2015 academic year. In 2012, the board voted to phase out Dyett because it was an underperforming school.
Although Gresham will remain open, Vitale said in a letter that the board will not reverse its decision for the school to be under new management as other factors were taken into consideration when a school is turned around.
“We have reviewed the data and information that you presented, including your proposal for an internal turnaround, and we have decided not to reverse the decision made at the April Board meeting,” Vitale said in a letter to the school.
The letter explained that CPS doesn’t only look at a school’s academic performance when considering it as a turnaround school. Board members also include input about the school’s principal and staff, according to the letter.
Brown said she doesn’t trust the board and that the members say they have the best interest of the children in mind, but they really don’t.
“When you have an appointed school board, you appoint people who think like you think, who will do what you tell them to do,” she said.
Citizens United to Preserve Education is a coalition that feels the same way. The group filed a complaint against the board last month arguing that the turnaround decision for the three schools should not count because of allege conflict of interests with AUSL. The group said they expect to hear back from the federal and CPS Inspectors General by June 20.
Brown said she doesn’t believe that AUSL teachers can give the students what they need, what her staff has been providing for generations.
“AUSL, they send teachers in to train, teachers in their first or second year and they use the children in our low-income schools,” she said. “They’re almost using them as guinea pigs to train because they do not stay here, AUSL teachers stay at the schools one or two years so they have no connection to these children.”
Fourth grade teacher, Herbert Singleton, has been at Gresham for two years, but with CPS for six. He is also a minister. Singleton has worked with juvenile delinquents and wards of the state for years and said that type of background comes in hand as a teacher because he has patience.
“I know that you can take troubled kids and have a positive outcome,” he said.
Singleton teaches math and science and said his students get excited to learn. There is even a fifth grade class that is already working on 8th grade geometry and freshmen algebra. He said last year his 4th grade class was ranked number one in the entire network of 33 schools in science, number two in math and number three in reading.
“How can it be said they aren’t learning anything when they were at the top of the network,” he said.
The connection that students have with teachers and staff can not be easily formed, he said.
“You have parents and great-grandparents that are raising children and when they send their kids to Gresham they know the teachers here because they’ve had generational relationships with the teachers so they feel assured that their kids are in good caring hands and I don’t think you can replace that relationship,” he said.
Eddie Ferrell has three children attending Gresham and he graduated from the school in 1997. As an active participant of the parent group he has been fighting to keep the school’s teachers and staff there.
“To take away their environment where you have faculty members, assistant principals and teachers that went to school here, grew up in this neighborhood, know the families from before those children were born, to take away things like that, that has a deeper effect on the child, that has to be considered,” he said.
Tony Hinton is a special education teacher’s assistant and also a minister, and said anyone working with his students needs lots of patience and love.
“You can’t give up on them,” he said.
Brown said her veteran teachers know what the students need. Gresham is like a family she described, saying she has teachers who keep washcloths and soap in their desks for the students who might not have that at home.
June 13 was everyone’s last day at Gresham. June 10 for Dvorak and June 17 for McNair.
Despite everything going on around Brown, she sat at her desk appearing calm during the last week. Her spiritual connection with God grounds her she said, looking behind her desk at the wall where a mirror hung with words underneath it.
“I’m not going to let this hurt me and ever since I been sitting in this office, the 10 years as the principal, this has been over my desk,” she said.
“It says his word burns in my heart like a fire and there’s a mirror and sometimes when I’m bombarded by things, such as this, and other things when I have to make decisions, tough decisions as a principal, I read that and the mirror is there for a reason, like look at yourself, believe in yourself,” she said.
“I feel stronger than ever, this is a fight for this school, not a fight for me,” Brown said.