WEST ENGLEWOOD — A group of parents at Earle STEM Elementary School is trying to remove the principal, with some objecting to meditation sessions at the school.
Earle Elementary's principal, Ketesha Melendez, acknowledged that children meditate, but denied they are forced to do so. She also denied the students are taught Buddhism or any other religion through meditation.
"Students meditate after breakfast, recess and before we dismiss for the day," Melendez said. "Parents can opt their children out of this exercise, which was approved by CPS and is used at other welcoming schools."
Most of the parents who object to the meditation are those whose children previously attended Elaine Goodlow Elementary before it was closed in June. They have started a petition drive to remove Melendez and plan to present the signatures at the School Board meeting Wednesday.
The group also alleges Melendez prohibits parents from entering the building to drop off or pick up their children, and that she authorizes teachers to take children to Lindblom Park, 6042 S. Damen Ave., for recess without parental permission. They cited safety as the main reason for their objection to recess being taken off school grounds. The park is adjacent to the school's back entrance.
However, Melendez said the park was on school grounds and that parents were welcome inside the school.
Earle Elementary is the result of consolidation and closings announced by CPS last spring.
In this case, Goodlow Elementary, 2040 W. 62nd St., was among the dozens of underutilized elementary schools shuttered. Charles W. Earle Elementary, 6121 S. Hermitage Ave., moved into Goodlow, removed the Goodlow name, and replaced the principal and most of the staff.
Earle has 526 students, according to Melendez. Previously, Earle had 330 students and Goodlow had 358.
Michelle Clark said while her 9-year-old son is enrolled at Earle, she refuses to send him to school until changes at Earle are made. And she was urging parents to boycott the school if Melendez was not removed.
"My biggest problem is when I found out from my son that students were meditating in class," she said.
A CPS spokesman confirmed that meditation is approved for use in some CPS schools, including Earle.
The practice is part of a "Calm Classroom" program that started in 2008 in three schools. Calm Classroom uses techniques that "develop self-awareness, mental focus, alertness and emotional calm." It was created by Jai Luster, a former Mesirow Financial manager, his wife, Joy, and National Louis University faculty.
Earle is one of 17 schools that added the Calm Classroom to its curriculum this year and uses the motto: "Learn to be calm, be calm to learn."
Aside from the meditation issue, Clark said Melendez was "a dictator and basically has told parents it's her way or no way.
"I have never met a principal who treats parents the way Mrs. Melendez does," Clark said. "She has got to go."
Another parent who signed the petition, Betty Deer, described Melendez as "not someone you can approach."
She added that she was not allowed to walk her daughter to class on the first day of school to meet the teacher and was stopped by security.
Additionally, Clark said Melendez talks too highly about herself to parents.
"She brags about how much education she has," Clark said. "She acts like the rest of us don't have education, and she treats parents like they are beneath her."
Melendez, a 33-year-old wife and mother, said she had been a principal for two years and earned a bachelor's in finance from the University of Illinois at Chicago. She has two master's degrees — in arts and teaching, and arts and education — from National Louis University.
During visits to Earle on Friday, Monday and Tuesday by DNAinfo.com Chicago, parents were being allowed inside the building during school hours to go to the main office.
Alonzo Williams, whose 9-year-old son attended Earle before it moved into the Goodlow building, said he was not satisfied with some of the teachers at the school.
"Earle teachers replaced most of the good teachers Goodlow had, and I don't like that at all," he said.
There are 34 teachers at Earle, and nine were retained from Goodlow, according to Melendez. Some Goodlow teachers were switched around, she said, because "They did not have the credentials to be in certain positions, so changes were made as a result."
As for the petition to get rid of her, Melendez said "some parents have told me about it, but I have not seen it. My focus is not on adults but the kids."
Some parents and students support Melendez.
Mekhia Harris, 11, said her sixth-grade class meditates daily for about 15 minutes and it "relaxes me.
"I've never done it before, but now that I do, I don't want to stop," Harris said. "I like this school better than my old school because there are not a lot of bad kids fighting and acting stupid."
Harris' mom, 33-year-old Natasha Cain, said she transferred her child to Earle after an incident at her previous school in which "a boy cut my daughter's ponytail when she was passing out papers in class.
"I should have pursued [criminal] charges against him, but I decided to transfer her to Earle, especially since my nephew already goes here," said Cain, a lifelong Englewood resident.
So far, Melendez seems "pretty cool," Cain said.
"She was very supportive when I told her what happened to my daughter," Cain said. "I have no problem with how she is running the school."
Melendez said it was true that students were taking recess at nearby Lindblom Park, but she said students were not leaving school grounds because the park was adjacent to the school.
"That's why there were no permission slips sent home," Melendez said. "Our after-school programs are held at Lindblom Park, and I haven't gotten any complaints from parents about that."
Melendez said parents could refuse to let their kids go to recess, but the children would have to stay in the school when their classmates went outside to play.
Earle does not have a playground, which is why students are taken to the park, Melendez said. She said she expected the school to have a playground in the next year.