OLD TOWN — The principal of one of the city's top public elementary schools has announced her plans to leave at the end of the school year, a decision that was influenced by new federal testing mandates.
LaSalle Language Academy's principal, Elisabeth Heurtefeu, has a unique perspective on the school system, as she has worked in both Paris and Chicago as an educator. Seeing both systems, and the frequent testing of students under the U.S. approach, played a role in her "extremely difficult" decision, she said.
"I am a person who has always done things that are aligned to what I believe in, and that’s why I can no longer do something that’s not aligned to what I believe in, even though it’s a special school," she said of LaSalle.
Paul Biasco says Heurtefeu took awhile to make this decision:
Heurtefeu took about six months to make the decision to leave after eight years at LaSalle.
"Rigorous standards were needed," she said. "What was not needed was over-testing."
One example of what she considers over-testing is the controversial PARCC exam, which has sparked a nationwide debate and prompted some students to opt out.
CPS students this month took the PARCC exam, which replaces the shorter Illinois Standard Achievement Test.
Heurtefeu has informed the Local School Council of her decision not to seek renewal of her contract at the end of the year. The LSC is working to hire a new principal.
In the French public school system, tests were administered every three years, she said.
During an interview with DNAinfo Chicago, Heurtefeu argued that the growth of children is often not linear, as frequent testing assumes.
"I'm not against accountability. I think it's needed, but the way to measure it is nuanced," she said. "Each time the children take a test, they don't receive instruction."
During Heurtefeu's tenure at LaSalle, a magnet school in Old Town, the school has excelled academically and pursued the "whole child" approach to education. The school doubled the number of after-school academic and sports programs and tripled the number of students involved. Now, about half of the school's students are in extracurricular activities, she said.
Heurtefeu also oversaw the growth of the school's exchange program, which sends dozens of students to China, France, Italy and Spain each year.
"It's a perfect school," Heurtefeu said. "I've had a great eight years."
The principal, who is bilingual in French and English and proficient in German and Spanish, has pushed the school's motto of "creating a renaissance spirit for the 21st century."
During her time at the school, an average of 68 percent of graduates have been accepted into selective- enrollment high schools each year.
"The demands of our parents expect LaSalle to deliver a graduate who is going to qualify for selective- enrollment high schools," Heurtefeu said.
The school received a level 1+ rating by CPS in the new CPS School Quality Rating Policy system and scored a 4.8 out of a possible 5.0 rating. Only two elementary schools scored higher, with a 4.9. Five CPS elementary schools scored a 4.8, along with LaSalle.
The decision to leave LaSalle Language Academy comes at a time when the school is excelling and is in line to possibly receive the prestigious National Blue Ribbon award.
Eighty-two percent of students at the school met or exceeded state standards on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test for the 2013-2014 school year.
Sixteen Illinois schools were nominated for the award this year, and Heurtefeu submitted the 50-page application to the U.S. Department of Education last week.
The department will recognize 290 public and 50 private schools for either overall academic excellence or their progress in closing achievement gaps among student subgroups.
Other Chicago Public Schools that recently have received the award include Andrew Jackson Language Academy in 2010, Audubon Elementary in 2011, Jones College Prep and Lane Tech in 2012, and Skinner West Elementary in 2013.
"It's really showing that we have been shining for a while, and finally the state is recognizing," Heurtefeu said.
Still, Heurtefeu said the time is right to leave.
"I don't do this job for personal recognition," she said. "I really do this job because I love the kids."
Members of LaSalle's LSC attempted to dissuade Heurtefeu and asked her to reconsider back in October.
Keith Thomas, co-chairman of LaSalle's LSC, said Heurtefeu will be sorely missed and that the school is better off now than when she came on board.
The school community was concerned about Heurtefeu's decision at first, but the quality of candidates who have been interviewing and the lengthy process has eased concerns, according to LSC member John Falck.
"For some of the parents, it's the only principal they've known, and understandably they were concerned to go from somebody who is very strong who we know," Falck said.
Heurtefeu said she plans to finish the year at LaSalle and help with finding her successor. After that, she says she may consider a consulting job, but will need time to clear her head. She's looking forward to some time off to concentrate on her hobbies: writing, music and sailing, she said.
Heurtefeu, who has a master's degree in business administration, plays the piano and guitar and has composed music.
She has received job offers, but is taking her time with the decision on her future.
"My head is still with LaSalle," she said. "I don't have the time right now to transition to anything. I will need a few months to get my brain back."
Heurtefeu, who grew up in Champagne, France, and moved to Paris to attend business school, left a successful job in business after five years in Paris to become a teacher. That meant cutting her pay by a quarter, she said.
Her first visit to the U.S. was a trip across the Atlantic in her early 20s when she captained a 29-foot sailboat.
A French newspaper clipping details Elizabeth Heurtefeu's second trans-Atlantic voyage in 1981.
After teaching for seven years in Paris elementary schools, she accepted a position at the Lycée Francais de Chicago on a whim while vacationing here in 1996.
She joined LaSalle as principal after 11 years at Lycée Francais.
"I don't compromise with my beliefs. I've never compromised them in my life," Heurtefeu said. Nobody is asking me to leave. I just made my decision to go toward something that will be more in line with what I do believe in."
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: