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'War Zone' Described at Uptown School After Courtenay, Stockton Merger

By Adeshina Emmanuel | January 7, 2014 8:10am
 Safety and security have been ongoing concerns in the aftermath of a controversial school merger.
Growing Pains at Courtenay School
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UPTOWN — Some parents and teachers say the third floor of Mary E. Courtenay Elementary School has become a "war zone."

The floor, home to middle-school classrooms, is where kids from two very different school communities were brought together after the Board of Education's controversial vote to merge Joseph Stockton Elementary School with Courtenay last May.

It's also where the majority of fights at the school break out, students and staff say.

A teacher — five months pregnant — was punched in the head while trying to break up a fight between two eighth-graders on the third floor on Dec. 17, the Chicago Police Department confirmed.

Teachers also said there was a fight in a third-floor classroom between two students earlier in December — and that it took seven minutes for a security guard to arrive after a teacher contacted the main office for help.

"There's so much fighting on the third floor, it's like a war zone," said teacher Claudia Pesenti, who also worked at Stockton.

Courtenay Local School Council Chairwoman Cassandra Vickas said that "safety and security has been an ongoing issue," at Courtenay.

"A lot of it has to do with the transition that we're working on," Vickas said, referring to the merger.

'This Isn't What We Signed Up For'

The merger was part of CPS' effort to close nearly 50 schools, and involved closing the former Courtenay building in Ravenswood and combining its student body with kids from Stockton. The merged school is now housed in the Stockton building at 4420 N. Beacon Ave. in Uptown — but it was renamed Courtenay.

In addition to clashing school cultures, some parents and teachers say there is a shortage of security guards at the school and claim that school Principal Macquline King and her administration haven't done enough to combat this year's problems with safety and student misconduct.

King declined repeated requests for comment.

CPS plans for the merger promised three security guards at the school this year. But there are only two at the school, which has about 612 students, said Vickas.

CPS said it will decide whether the school needs more security guards.

"We will look into the situation," officials said in a statement. "If appropriate, changes will be made."

The school needs one guard stationed at the main school entrance, one walking around the school and one stationed on the third floor to address problems there, said Vickas.

"The other security guard is something we have been looking for since the beginning of the year," Vickas said.

Uptown resident Corinna Chau, a member of the transition team that planned introductory activities for students and staff from both schools, said the extra guard was key to having a smooth transition.

"This isn't what we signed up for," she said.

Within the first month of school, Chau's eighth-grade daughter Sascha was challenged to a fight by another student who accused her of looking at her the wrong way in the cafeteria, Sascha said. The girl wanted to fight in a third-floor bathroom, but Sascha refused.

She never got into a fight at the old Courtenay building, she said.

Sascha said "war zone" was a "pretty accurate" way to describe the floor where she attends most of her classes. 

"There's nobody really to watch us there except for the teachers," said the 13-year-old.

Part of the problem, Sascha said, is that some teachers from the old Courtenay can't handle some of the merged school's older students, who are more brazenly disrespectful than students in the lower grades.

Some teachers "act scared, and are trying to be strict — but it doesn't work," she said.

Sascha wants to leave, but will stay on since she is graduating at the end of the year, she said.

Otherwise, "I would probably transfer," she said.

On Dec. 17, pregnant science teacher Lindsay Annunzio was punched in the head by an eighth-grade girl as Annunzio tried to stop a fight between the girl and another student, staff and police said.

School officials did not contact police, teachers said. Annunzio contacted police herself and went to the hospital, but reportedly did not suffer serious injuries.

Annunzio, who moved to the Uptown building after teaching at Courtenay in Ravenswood, said "I'm handling it with the union" when reached by phone.

Pesenti suggested a union grievance could be filed related to the school's handling of the incident.

CPS said in a statement that "the school handled the incident appropriately according to the CPS Student Code of Conduct" which lets schools decide whether to call police.

Although the students involved did not face charges, they were suspended for six days.

'A Clash of School Cultures'

CPS expected about 720 kids at Courtenay this school year. The most recent CPS numbers show about 100 fewer students than that. Parents and teachers say the difference is due to an exodus of kids who had attended the old Courtenay.

"What we're hearing is people don't feel safe," said Pesenti, who is also a Chicago Teacher's Union delegate and member of the school's Professional Problems Committee.

The safety issue came to a head at a heated LSC meeting last month, where Pesenti charged that the school's former LSC chairwoman, Romana Puente, transferred her child out of Courtenay after the child was bullied and later beat up on school grounds in the fall.

A call to the Puente household confirmed Pesenti's claim that problems with a bully led to Puente transferring her daughter.

"It was a bullying issue," said a man who identified himself as the child's father. "We transferred because there were some problems with bullies, and nobody would take care of it."

After the LSC meeting last month, a parent on the LSC who asked not to be named said his son, who had attended the former Courtenay, also didn't feel safe in the school and had requested to be transferred.

Before the Board of Education vote that consolidated Courtenay and Stockton, the old Courtenay community already was split about the merger. Some people were eager to move the school (which was crowded) to Stockton's much bigger building, while others were concerned about how becoming a neighborhood school in Uptown could change the culture of Courtenay.

Stockton was a neighborhood school on academic probation. Courtenay was a small, tight-knit school in good academic standing that accepted students from across the city via lottery.

Stockton last year had about 450 kids, 86 percent who came from low-income households and 11 percent who were homeless. Courtenay had about 250 kids — 73 percent from low-income households and 3 percent who were homeless.

While fights at the new Courtenay don't always involve students from the two different schools, Vickas, the current LSC chair, said the conflicts could be fueled by "a clash of school cultures."

According to CPS' 2012-2013 School Progress Reports, Stockton had a rate of student misconduct of about 10 incidents per 100 students. Courtenay's rate was 1.2 incidents per 100 students. About 57 percent of reported student misconduct at Stockton resulted in suspensions, indicating serious offenses, such as fighting. The school had a "neutral" safety rating from CPS.

In contrast, 20 percent of reported misconduct resulted in suspensions at Courtenay, which received a "very strong" safety rating from CPS.

CPS officials said misconduct statistics at the new Courtenay are still being compiled and not yet available.

Principal Hasn't 'Articulated' Safety Concerns to CPS

Students and teachers at the old Stockton were split about whether the problems at the newly merged school are worse than what they experienced last year.

While there's a lot of "the same old drama" between kids, "it does seem like there's more fights this year," said a Courtenay eighth-grader who asked not to be named.

A Courtenay teacher who taught at Stockton for more than a decade said she didn't think there have been more fights this year. But she criticized the school administration's response to conflicts as "disorganized."

Because of "the poor response by the administration" to misconduct by individual students, student conflicts have "escalated into more serious violence," she said.

She said there was no formal discipline referral form for teachers to fill out "until about a month and a half ago."

Teachers on Courtenay's Professional Problems Committee have asked the administration for schoolwide data to analyze and look for trends on when and where fighting and bullying occur, but have not received that data yet.

For instance: "Is it the transition to lunch? On the playground? Is it a certain classroom?" asked  Pesenti.

Several teachers at Courtenay who taught at Stockton said a schoolwide misconduct and discipline data system is no longer being used.

At the December LSC meeting, King, the principal, declined to say why the system wasn't being used anymore, but indicated a new system would be put into place at some point this year.

LSC chairman Vickas said that Courtenay has some legitimate safety issues to work on, but didn't criticize King, saying she has "a daunting job" running the newly merged school after being hired in July during the transition process.

CPS spokeswoman Keiana Barrett said in an interview last week that none of the safety or discipline concerns or incidents mentioned by parents, students and teachers at Courtenay "had been articulated" by King to CPS.

The Office of Safety and Security will now "have to go and re-engage" King and determine what steps should be made, if any, to improve safety at Courtenay, Barrett said.

"Typically, there are ongoing discussions between our Office of Safety and Security and our principals to ensure that all things are going smoothly with the merger of two communities," Barrett said. "The safety of our students and school personnel is one of our chief concerns, and so our focus is to ensure that there is two-way communication between school leadership and our Office of Safety and Security."

Last May, CPS published an independent report from retired judge Charles R. Winkler, who oversaw public hearings about the merger and suggested CPS put the brakes on plans for the merger because CPS was not expected to have a safety plan for the new school ready until right before school started in the fall. The school district did not heed Winkler's advice.