BELMONT CRAGIN — After years of giving Prosser Career Academy's leaders bad reviews on a CPS survey, the school's teachers last year handed out stellar grades in an effort to manipulate the survey and keep the school out of the line of fire, sources familiar with the situation said.
The school went from a "neutral" score on leadership — well below similar schools and the citywide CPS average — to a "strong" leadership score at the level of some of the top selective-enrollment schools in the city. Good scores on the survey indicate schools are more likely to improve student learning, according to the University of Chicago Consortium, which administers the survey.
The results of the survey are highlighted on a Chicago Public Schools website parents use to decide where to send their kids to school. Next year, the results will be used to evaluate both the school leadership and faculty at the school, located at 2148 N. Long St.
The huge jump in leadership scores from 2012-2013 came even though the leadership at the school was unchanged, with Principal Kenneth Hunter in place for the last 10 years. He has gone on medical leave this year and not announced whether he will return.
Carol Caref, research consultant for the Chicago Teachers Union, confirmed "teachers reporting that they were told in meetings that, if they didn't want their school to be downgraded, they should fill out this survey in a positive way."
A source familiar with the situation confirmed the school principal told teachers that by criticizing his leadership on the surveys, they were potentially hurting themselves by putting the school in the line of fire. The source said that after years of giving the school's leadership bad marks, the teachers were swayed that the surveys were reflecting poorly on the overall reputation of the school.
"We've been oversurveyed," the source said. "It's all become paper, paper, paper, paper, and it's all designed to fire them."
CPS will "use what you say to beat you over the head later. And teachers have never understood that.
"What they finally became convinced of at the school is people are looking at them, and what they're gonna do with these surveys is they're gonna use the surveys to evaluate the school and evaluate the teachers," the source said.
Caref said the study originally served to correlate sound teacher-principal and student-teacher relationships with good school performance, apart from test scores. That was a possible benefit. But then CPS announced plans to adopt it into its school-quality rating policy, which only encouraged teachers to tell CPS what it wanted to hear.
"That's the problem," Caref said. "Whenever you take something and use it for consequences, then it changes the measure."
She added: "It's too bad that you have a measure that actually could give you some accurate information that could be used to help the schools, and instead using it to measure the performance policy, which they've used to close schools."
CPS spokeswoman Lauren Huffman said the district is concerned about allegations that the results of the survey were orchestrated.
"That's something we take very seriously," she said.
Yet, according to CPS' Accountability Office, "the 32-point increase isn't that unusual," and there was no investigation made into the accuracy of the Prosser results.
CPS said it will go ahead with plans to use the survey in its school-quality rating policy next year, and it doesn't expect to make any changes in how the survey is administered.
But an official with the University of Chicago's Urban Education Initiative, which conducts the survey, said that Prosser's scores were "significantly higher than other similar schools."
The biggest boost on the survey last year went to categories that directly mentioned the principal.
Hunter's marks on "principal instructional leadership" — which measures whether the "principal is an active and skilled instructional leader" went from 34, which is considered "weak," to 71, which ranks as "strong." "Teacher-principal trust" went from 35 to 75.
Prosser also scored an 83, "very strong," on the level of teacher influence on school policies and practices, up from a "neutral" 59 the year before. Program coherence went from 41 to 75.
All the scores factored into the 74 overall leadership rating.
At the same time, the average CPS score on the leadership survey slipped slightly from 53 to 52, while "similar schools" to Prosser rose slightly from 55 to 60. By comparison, neighborhood high schools such as Taft had a 51 leadership rating, and Schurz a 27, while the Prosser scores were more in the range of top selective-enrollment high schools like Northside College Prep, at 79, or Walter Payton College Prep, at 73.
According to the U. of C. official, who asked not to be identified, researchers can flag a school for posting gains above a certain threshold, but it could not be confirmed whether Prosser was flagged. The official said surveyors tend to keep their methods closely guarded because otherwise it would "make it even easier to game going forward."
But the source at Prosser contends the orchestrated effort to improve the school's leadership score on the survey was not an attempt to lie, but simply to stress the positive — not an easy thing for teachers to do, given how they're often browbeaten by CPS leadership.
"One of the things teachers really like is to say negative things about where they are," the source said. "If you've ever been with a teacher in a bar ... it's never good news, it's never what we're doing, it's always complain, complain, complain."
Timothy Czarnecki, a Prosser graduate and longtime community representative on the Local School Council, said he hadn't heard about the teachers' concerted effort on the survey, but it didn't surprise him.
"We've always been brought up ... to say it's not right to brag about yourself. I think that's the problem at Prosser," Czarnecki said. "They don't sing enough of their praises, and I don't think most people know what Prosser is actually doing, that it's not just a typical neighborhood school."
He pointed out the former vocational school, which now has 1,200 students, has added an International Baccalaureate program and draws students from well beyond the local area, with 3,000 typically applying annually for 300 openings.
"The kids want to come here. The staff is very engaged with the kids," Czarnecki said. "That's what we're trying to tell them, to blow your horn and let people know what you're doing, by all means."
Wanda Hopkins, who recently ran unsuccessfully against Czarnecki as the LSC community representative, said she didn't know anything about teachers attempting to alter the survey results either, but likewise, would not be surprised.
"I'm sure they did that," said Hopkins, a member of Parents United for Responsible Education. "They have some smart cookies there when it comes to that."
The Prosser source was not aware of any other schools making such an organized effort to alter the survey, and blamed CPS' "divide-and-conquer" strategy toward dealing with teachers and principals.
Caref likewise said she had heard only isolated reports of possible tampering at other schools.
Caref said the situation is worrisome because the point of the survey is to identify areas that need to improve. But if teachers start giving answers they thought researchers and CPS leaders were looking for, the results could be compromised, Caref said.
"If teachers are filling out this survey with the purpose of getting their school's scores up, then the survey is not going to point out areas of need," Caref said. "There's a potential to do something positive with this survey, but that's not what's happening."
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: