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McPherson Forum Reveals Divide on Principal's Retention

By Patty Wetli | December 20, 2012 9:59am | Updated on December 20, 2012 11:12am

LINCOLN SQUARE — With the contract of the school's principal up for renewal, McPherson Elementary's Local School Council (LSC) Principal Retention Committee held a public forum for parents and members of the community in order to solicit feedback on Carmen Mendoza's performance.

Praise for Mendoza was near uniform during both a group break-out session and again when the retention committee invited individual comment.

"This is a special place," said Todd Ochs, who's sent four children to McPherson. "I gotta say, are any of us irreplaceable? Probably not. But this place sure wouldn't be the same without Carmen."

Yet most of the positive reviews came from the school's teachers who comprised the vast majority of the appoximately 50 attendees at Tuesday night's meeting.

"I don't think we're going to have enough parent input," said Michael Gallagher, LSC teacher representative and member of the retention committee. Bob Farster, an LSC parent representative, and parent Sarah Evans were the other committee members present.

"It would have been a much more genuine and open discussion if it could have been more parents and community," said one parent, who "worried about reprisals" and asked to remain anonymous. "It was a little intimidating."

"It's very tense," Katie Osgood, McPherson LSC community representative, said of the atmosphere.

Mendoza's decision last June to terminate the contracts of a number of highly-regarded teachers, citing new requirements linked to the longer school day, continues to trouble some members of the McPherson community. Though the positions were ultimately restored, the faculty members opted to seek employment elsewhere.

"Six staff members chose to leave McPherson last year and I feel that needs to be addressed," said Amanda Dunakin, one of the departed teachers who still resides in the neighborhood.

The anonymous parent concurred. "I felt like my input was not welcome" last spring, said the parent. "We left the year with many questions and I'm disappointed in the communication."

"It's not always rosy," acknowledged Pam Touras, a 23-year McPherson veteran. "We're like siblings — we argue, we fight. We put on a good face for our kids."

Internal politics aside, feedback from parents, community members and staff is just one measure the Principal Retention Committee will use to evaluate Mendoza before making a recommendation to the full LSC.

Principals typically sign four-year contracts and it's one of an LSC's most important duties to determine whether to renew the agreement for another term.

"It's a pretty arduous process of collecting information," said Gallagher, holding up the hefty LSC handbook, which contains 62 pages on principal evaluation and another 100 on principal renewal.

McPherson has a Level 2 performance rating (good standing). With an enrollment of approximately 700 students and a capacity for 1,100, the school is on Chicago Public Schools' list of underutilized facilities.

The school's most recent scorecard shows 79.4 percent of students meet or exceed state standards on the ISAT Composite, but only 6.6 percent exceed state standards in grade 8 (versus a 15.8 percent CPS average).

A 5Essentials report from the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute, which assesses specific components of school success, shows McPherson lagging comparable schools in key performance areas.

"Facts are looking in the kids' faces," countered faculty member John Swenson. "I believe these children are growing. I believe these children are learning, they feel loved, they feel safe. Learning trickles down from the leader."

The LSC will meet in closed session in early January, with the retention committee delivering its recommendation at that time. The official LSC vote on Mendoza is set to take place Jan. 15, 6 p.m., at McPherson, 4728 N. Wolcott Ave.