WICKER PARK — The founding director of a Southwest Side charter school is serving as the interim leader of a Wicker Park elementary school that lost its principal and assistant principal to a reassignment sparked by an ongoing CPS investigation.
After being introduced by CPS' Fulton Network Chief Wanda Washington at Jose de Diego Community Academy's Local School Council meeting Tuesday, Patricia Gonzalez, a self-described "product of CPS" said she had "missed working in CPS."
"I had a few other options at other schools and, though this is the riskier option because it is an interim position, I want to be here," Gonzalez said.
Prior to her current role in Wicker Park, Gonzalez served as the principal of Multicultural Academy of Scholarship High School in Little Village and most recently, as the founding Academic Director at UNO Soccer Academy, a charter elementary school at 5050 S. Homan Ave. in the Southwest Side Gage Park neighborhood.
On Tuesday, her second day on the new job, Gonzalez told 20 parents, teachers and community members that "it's understandable you are in a time of transition" and pledged to "hit the ground learning."
On June 30, Alice Vera, principal of Diego at 1313 N. Claremont Ave., was removed from her position along with her co-principal, Michele Gulo, CPS confirmed.
The largest "welcoming school" in CPS, which absorbed students from three shuttered neighborhood schools at the start of the past school year, Diego serves 900 students and has 50 teachers, according to Diana Montarrez, the school's Chicago Teachers Union representative and a member of the LSC.
Vera is still officially the school's contract principal, Washington assured LSC members, several of whom seemed concerned about the status of Vera and Gulo as well as ensuring that teacher's jobs are preserved.
Washington said "the budget had already been determined" for next year and "there is no timeline" for how long Gonzalez will lead the school in the interim or when the investigation will be complete.
"[Vera and Gulo] are not fired — they are reassigned within CPS. No determination has been made," Washington said, adding that "it is a personnel matter; they are entitled to due process."
Washington said that the reassignment had caused no disruption to summer school or other school programs.
When asked by a teacher what Vera and Gulo are doing for CPS during the reassignment, Washington said she did not know.
One frustrated parent complained to Washington that "we had to find out about [the reassignment] through news reports and hearsay." Washington promised to be "in constant communication" with the LSC and and later provided her email and phone number to everyone in the room.
After the meeting, Veronica Vega, a parent of two Diego students, said she came to the meeting because she "wanted to see what's going on because nobody knows what's going on."
Even Veronica Vega's husband, Jeff Vega, who is the chair of the LSC, said that he only became aware of the reassignment of Vera and Gulo after being approached by a reporter for a comment on the matter.
"Today's meeting clarified for us that we are all on the same page," Veronica Vega said.
Pam Alexandroff, a fifth-grade teacher at the school, said, "Shock and dismay due to a pervasive lack of communication" are the emotions she has experienced upon hearing of the reassignment.
"We knew there was an investigation going on but had absolutely no idea of its result and and its possible devastation to the school," Alexandroff said, adding that her loyalty to the school means she's "ready to work with any changes" in leadership.
"This thing needs to get straightened out. While I can't speak for everyone, this is a painful and frustrating time," said Alexandroff, a 19-year veteran of the school.
CPS officials have refused to discuss the reasons behind the removal of Vera and Gulo. A source close to the matter say it may be related to "ghost enrollment" to increase student numbers for reimbursement.
Many expressed support for Vera and Gulo at Tuesday's meeting.
"I fully support her. I cannot speak for others but she has brought great things to this school and any decision she has made was for the benefit of the students," said the LSC's Montarrez, who has two children enrolled at Diego.
LSC chairman Jeff Vega said Vera and Gulo "have the LSC's full support."
Yeisha Ruiz, who graduated from the school in the early 1990s, is a mother of four Diego children.
While she declined to comment on Vera or Gulo, Ruiz said, "I'm just hopeful for the future of Diego. We have a rich history here and want things to stay strong," Ruiz said.
Jose de Diego's next LSC meeting is scheduled for 9:30 a.m. Aug. 12 at the school, 1313 N. Claremont Ave.