CPS Board OKs Turnarounds at Three Schools Despite Strong Opposition

By Ted Cox on April 23, 2014 4:29pm 

 Gresham Principal Diedrus Brown told the Board of Education: "You destabilized our school for the past two years by taking money away."
Gresham Principal Diedrus Brown told the Board of Education: "You destabilized our school for the past two years by taking money away."
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DNAinfo/Wendell Hutson

THE LOOP — Despite strong community opposition, the Board of Education prepared to wipe clean teachers and staff at three schools designated for "turnaround" at its monthly meeting Wednesday.

The Board of Education voted to approve all three for the turnaround process.

“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," CPS CEO Byrd-Bennett said in a statement. "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.”

The vote came even as parents, teachers and, in one case, a formidable principal defended the elementary schools — Gresham, McNair and Dvorak — and blamed Chicago Public Schools for their failure by depriving them of necessary resources.

"Given money, we can do many, many things," said Diedrus Brown, principal of Gresham Elementary. She said test scores rose when the school was allowed extra funding, and that it achieved the middle tier for a Level 2 school in 2011. "You destabilized our school for the past two years by taking money away," Brown added.

"It's Chicago Public Schools, not Chicago private schools," Brown insisted.

"We are not failures at Gresham," said Tina Bumbers Walker, a second-grade teacher and alumna at the school. "It's not just about scores.

"We were progressing," she added, but then pointed out the school had no gym, music or art teachers and no librarian. She attacked the "disparity" in funding citywide.

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis pointed out that Dvorak, in North Lawndale, had been judged "well-organized" in CPS' own climate survey. "These are human beings and not data points," she added, referring to both students and staff.

"I don't think the school needs a new climate," said Dvorak parent Connie Sims. "I think it needs more money and resources. ... The school is starving."

 Dvorak parent Connie Sims said, "I don't think the school needs a new climate. I think it needs more money and resources."
Dvorak parent Connie Sims said, "I don't think the school needs a new climate. I think it needs more money and resources."
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Denise Little, chief officer of networks at CPS, said all three schools had been on probation for years and had continued to suffer declines in test scores. She called the move "difficult but necessary" and said the turnaround system was "proven" to produce improvement.

Effective next school year, the three schools will be turned over to the Academy for Urban School Learning, which according to Little already runs 29 CPS schools with 17,000 students. As part of the turnaround process, AUSL receives extra funding and gets free rein in replacing teachers and administrators at the schools.

AUSL staffers and parents at AUSL schools defended the agency's processes. Principal Tamara Davis of Herzl School insisted AUSL was beneficial to schools in turnaround.

CPS officials granted that all three schools had recently suffered declines in enrollment, trimming their per-pupil budget allotment. Yet Board President David Vitale said, "There has been an effort made in the past to provide additional funds," with $1 million going to Dvorak for its transition to a technological academy.

Other CPS officials admitted, however, that Gresham had no computers.

Ald. Michael Chandler (24th), though, pointed out that Dvorak Principal Cheryl White had been on the job for little more than a year and had already produced improvements in the school, if not right away on test scores.

"We should look at other methods to improve academic performance at Dvorak," he said.

Board member Andrea Zopp seemed to agree, asking, "Why not give her a chance?"

Zopp eventually provided the only vote in opposition on Dvorak and McNair. The Gresham turnaround passed unanimously by the five members present.

Rebeca Nieves-Huffman, state director of Democrats for Education Reform, cheered the move, saying, "Today’s decision by CPS and the Board of Education is the right thing to do for the students and parents who come face to face with the realities of a failing school on a daily basis. Every student in every community should have access to a quality education of their families’ choosing, and every parent deserves the peace of mind that their child is in an environment that will help them grow and succeed."

Yet, arguing for Gresham, parent Clarence George threatened to "turn around" Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CEO Byrd-Bennett. Other parents threatened to visit Little's home as they were ushered out of the public-comment area.

Zopp said that did not help the cause of those opposed to the turnarounds. "These things are not going to move us," she added.

Vitale called it "totally inappropriate."

"There are a lot of passions around these issues. People feel strongly about their schools," Vitale said. "Decisions aren't always easy."

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