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Gresham School Principal Slams Turnaround Plan, Decries Poor Funding

By Wendell Hutson | April 4, 2014 7:25am
 About 200 people attended an April 2, 2014 community meeting at Walter Gresham Elementary School in Auburn Gresham.
Walter Gresham Elementary Meeting
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AUBURN GRESHAM — Parents trying to stop Walter Gresham Elementary School from becoming a "turnaround" school — essentially ousting most staff — have an in-house ally in their fight: school Principal Diedrus Brown.

Brown charged Thursday that the turnaround is unnecessary and said the district has changed plans for the future of the school multiple times and hasn't given the school the money it needs to thrive.

"It's all about the money,'' she said. "I want the resources they give other schools. And when I say other schools I am talking about charters and those in more affluent neighborhoods."

Gresham, 8524 S. Green St., which has 350 students and 25 teachers, is one of three schools CPS is recommending as a turnaround school this fall to the Board of Education. The entire staff at the school — including the teachers, principal and even the security guards — would have to re-apply for their jobs. The nonprofit Academy of Urban School Leadership, which currently oversees 29 schools, would manage the school.

"We have been jerked around like the Super Cycle in the washing machine for the last three years," Brown said, noting that CPS had earlier said the school would close, share a building with another school or become a welcoming school for another school that closed.

None of those early plans came to fruition. But in the meantime, the school hasn't had enough money to hire specialty teachers or a librarian.

There is a second-grade class with nearly 40 students because there is not money to hire another teacher, Brown said.

"The school district sent us all these books for our students to use but we do not have a librarian," Brown added. "We need a music teacher and an art teacher, but we don't have the money to hire anyone."

Even though CPS spent millions of dollars renovating Gresham last summer, some of it was spent on installing two elevators, which she said the school did not have the disabled population to support.

"I don't know any school that has two elevators," she said.

CPS did not return messages seeking comment on Brown's charges.

But officials have said Gresham was chosen to undergo the process based on input from current and past area network chiefs regarding the abilities of the principal and staff, the quality of the academic program, the school's culture, and by comparing the school's performance data to other schools within its network and across CPS.

In 2004, when Brown became Gresham principal, 34.7 percent of Gresham students met or exceeded state standards, according to the Illinois School Report Card. By 2011, that number had increased to 64.4 percent and Gresham was up to good standing status. But in 2012, the number of students meeting standards dropped to 58.3 percent and the school's good standing status was removed.

Brown, a Burnside resident, said she was upset when Englewood-Auburn Gresham Network Chief Elizabeth Kirby told the 200 parents and community members at a Wednesday meeting that Gresham was being proposed for a turnaround because of a "steady decline" in academic performance.

"No disrespect to other neighboring schools, but William Ryder and Mahalia Jackson have been on probation for a long time too, but they're not being recommended for a turnaround," Brown said.

According to CPS data, Ryder, 8716 S. Wallace St., has been on probation for six years while Jackson, 917 W. 88th St., has been on probation for 11 years. Both schools were considered last year for closure but were ultimately spared.

Ald. Howard Brookins (21st), whose ward includes Gresham Elementary, is also against the proposal.

"I am going to try and stop it. I am against the school turnaround," Brookins said Thursday. "And I have concerns about [the Academy of Urban School Leadership] taking over the school and cutting out the Local School Council in the process."

Gerald Stewart, manager of educational support for the nonprofit, attended the meeting but declined comment.

At the meeting, a retired CPS teacher Marie Kilkey said turnarounds can be disruptive to students.

"School is more about reading, writing, math, science and other subjects. It is about relationships," she said. "Relationships between students, teachers and staff — stability is important in a child's life and replacing the staff is not the answer."

Parent Clarence George praised Brown and said he wants the school to remain in its current format.

"I had three sons graduate from Gresham. My daughter is in the eighth grade at Gresham and I have a grandson at Gresham," he said. "Dr. Brown is one of the best principals in the system and we need to keep her here. So for those of you trying to take away jobs from Gresham staff, don't be surprised if you wake up one day and your job is gone. The Bible says you will reap what you sow."

The school board is expected to vote on the recommendations at its Wednesday meeting, along with proposed turnarounds at Ronald McNair Elementary School, 4820 W. Walton St., and Dvorak Technology Academy, 3615 W. 16th St.