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CPS Budget Cuts: Ex-Stockton Teacher Suggests Criticism Of CPS Got Him Axed

 Derek Bridges speaking at a public hearing in April.
Derek Bridges speaking at a public hearing in April.
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DNAinfo/Adeshina Emmanuel

UPTOWN — Laid off Chicago Public Schools teacher Derek Bridges said he grew up in a small town in Kentucky with dreams of one day teaching in a big city — and that he and his newlywed wife, also a teacher, hoped to live the rest of their lives here.

The 32-year-old Edgewater resident had been an untenured teacher at the former Joseph Stockton Elementary School (now Mary E. Courtenay School after a merger) for three years before last week, when school officials axed him via email.

While Bridges is seeking work at other CPS schools, he said moving to Missouri or Nevada might be his next step.

It wasn't a complete surprise for an untenured teacher to be let go, said Bridges, who studied education as an undergrad at Abilene Christian University in Texas and as a graduate student at Northwestern University in Evanston.

But Bridges can't shake the idea that Ravenswood-Ridge Network Chief Craig Benes' alleged displeasure over the teacher criticizing CPS at public meetings played a part in his dismissal.

"I think it may have," said Bridges, one of Stockton's most vocal CPS critics. "I can't say definitely one way or the other. But I think it may provide further obstacles as I continue to try to find a new position."

Benes had been at public meetings and witnessed Bridges accuse school officials of being out of touch with schools and inconsiderate in their plan to shutter them in the name of finances — despite concerns that communities would be destabilized.

Bridges called the school closings process "a sham" in an April interview with DNAinfo Chicago.

The former fifth-grade teacher said that he was called from his classroom to Stockton's main office in the spring and received a verbal reprimand from Benes.

"He specifically told me that I shouldn't be speaking against the school closings," Bridges said. "From his perspective, I was making him look bad to his bosses by questioning the school closing process."

Bridges said the encounter altered his relationships with teachers and members of the school administration who “had their well being and their families to look out for” and distanced themselves from him.

Efforts to reach Benes were unsuccessful. But former Stockton Principal Jill Besenjak said Benes' clash with Bridges "had absolutely nothing to do with" Bridges' pink slip.

“[Bridges] doesn’t have tenure, that’s it,” Besenjak said.

A CPS spokeswoman said in an email that she couldn't discuss "the particulars of this case," but emphasized that more than 60 percent of untenured teachers who reapply "find other jobs within the district."

Though Bridges was laid off, most teachers at Stockton, which is merging with Courtenay, were hired back, according to Besenjak, who is helping new principal Macquline King with the transition before retiring in October after 21 years in CPS and eight years as boss at Stockton.

About 20 out of 25 teachers were given positions at the new school, which will be named Courtenay and house about 650 students in the former Stockton building, including DNAinfo Chicago's inaugural "Teacher of the Week," Anita Zajac.

Five were laid off. But three teachers already had positions elsewhere. Bridges and another teacher weren't so fortunate in a situation Besenjak said many thought might end up a lot worse.

Bridges said he would miss the diversity of students at Stockton. He cited "their eagerness to really find their place in the world" and find ways they could impact the world in a positive way.

Bridges' wife, an untenured CPS teacher at a school he declined to name, has a job as of this week. She, however, "is still being bounced around at her school" and doesn't have a full guarantee that her position will exist by the time the new school year begins, he said.

They married March 22.

"I really intended to live the rest of my life here. My wife and I both did," Bridges said. "The idea that we might have to leave because of situations that are out of our control is really disappointing."