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Gresham Elementary 'Turnaround' Plan Slammed By Principal, Teachers Union

By Wendell Hutson | April 8, 2014 12:12pm
 Walter Gresham Elementary School Principal Diedrus Brown (c.) and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis (r.) discuss why they believe a turnaround proposed for the South Side school is a bad idea.
Walter Gresham Elementary School Principal Diedrus Brown (c.) and Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis (r.) discuss why they believe a turnaround proposed for the South Side school is a bad idea.
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DNAinfo/Wendell Hutson

AUBURN GRESHAM — Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and Walter Gresham Elementary School Principal Diedrus Brown have joined forces to fight a turnaround plan for the South Side school.

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 reapply for their jobs. The nonprofit Academy of Urban School Leadership, which currently oversees 29 schools, would manage the school.

During a Tuesday news conference, Lewis said Gresham and other academically challenged schools would improve if the district gave them the resources they needed. Lewis also accused the district of targeting nicer school buildings for turnarounds.

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

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

"Schools that have been recently renovated have always been a target for a turnaround. Do not think this is about the children. This is for people who benefit politically and financially," Lewis said. "This is clearly a hostile takeover."

The Chicago School Board is expected to vote on a turnaround proposal for Gresham; Ronald McNair Elementary School, 4820 W. Walton St., and Dvorak Technology Academy, 3615 W. 16th St. at its April 23 meeting.

Brown said she hopes to meet with Barbara Byrd-Bennett, CEO of Chicago Public Schools, before the vote, but has not spoken to the schools chief since going public with her concerns last week.

"The notion that Gresham needs to be turned around because of declining test scores is not true. Our scores have improved since I took over as principal 10 years ago. I do not know why CPS is not being truthful with parents about the 'real' reason why it wants this building. My integrity would not allow me to stand by and not say anything."

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. In 2012, however, the number of students meeting standards dipped to 58.3 percent, and the school's good standing status was removed.

Brown said that the school system has consistently encouraged her to hire younger teachers as a way to save money. Brown's contract expires in 2016 and she suggested she might retire if she is displaced due to a turnaround.

"It's not about me. I am not sure what is next for me but I want to make sure my teachers are not left jobless. I have hired a lot of veteran teachers because younger teachers do not always have the experience needed to manage a classroom," Brown said. "My fear is that if Gresham is turned around my veteran teachers would have a hard time finding another teaching position."

In a statement, CPS said it would continue seeking community input before making a recommendation to the school board on the Gresham turnaround.

“We do not take a decision to bring systemic change to a school lightly, but when change is in the best interest of our students, we will not waver," Byrd-Bennett said in a statement. "We are committed to ensuring all of our students have access to a high-quality education and right now that is not what the students at Gresham are receiving."

Academy of Urban School Leadership officials said that while parents initially oppose school turnarounds, their opinion changes a year later, based on a family satisfaction survey parents fill out.

"Parents want what's best for their children, but do not necessarily embrace change right away," said Deidre Campbell, a spokeswoman for the nonprofit organization. "Our schools have consistently outperformed the district in students meeting or exceeding state standards."

Campbell could not immediately provide information about how many schools the organization helped get off academic probation.

The problem, Lewis and Brown said Tuesday, is funding. Last week, Brown pointed out a second-grade class with nearly 40 students because there is not money to hire another teacher.

"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."