GALEWOOD — A "toxic" environment at Sayre Language Academy has led teachers to quit in droves, parents to consider pulling their kids out of school and calls for the principal to resign, parents and teachers at the school said.
The school, attended by students in pre-kindergarten through eighth grade at 1850 N. Newland Ave., has seen at least 35 teachers leave since 2011, according to the Chicago Teachers Union. About half of the teachers employed at the school in 2013 remain on staff, the union says.
What's more, two middle-school math teachers have already left this year, and a few others have either left or are considering leaving, school sources said.
Some left after just a few weeks or months on the job, according to a detailed count provided to DNAinfo by a member of the Local School Council, which puts the number of teachers that left even higher.
The culture is so poor that just 5 percent of teachers in surveys done by the University of Chicago's Consortium on Chicago School Research agreed that Principal Suzana Ustabecir "is an effective manager who makes the school run smoothly."
Parents also rated the school culture as "weak" or "very weak" in multiple areas surveyed by the U. of C.
The poor climate and high turnover — some classes have been taught by different subs for weeks or months after teachers left — have contributed to an increase in bullying at the school, teachers and parents said. Some 60 families attended a meeting last month in part to discuss concerns over bullying, and campus staff met with officials with CPS network officials on Monday to discuss the climate and culture at the school.
Some parents and teachers accuse Ustabecir of berating school employees in front of students, which they said has set a bad example in the school.
"The kids run amok," said the school's longtime clerk, Maggie Troche, who went on medical leave because of stress caused by what she said was a "toxic" environment at the school. "If you disrespect an adult in front of children, then they lose respect for" them.
Teachers accuse the principal of being emotionally abusive. One teacher recalls being threatened with being fired on the first day on the job.
"It's not uncommon to see people crying in the building after leaving meetings with her," said one current teacher, who asked not to be named.
Ustabecir did not return messages seeking comment.
Not everyone affiliated with the school agrees the principal, who has been at the helm since 2009, should step down.
"I'm not ready to get my pitchfork out just yet," said Eric Mattlin, the community representative on the Local School Council. "There's a concerted effort to undermine the principal's authority. It's clearly working."
Level 1 School
The school, which has 476 students and sits in the working class neighborhood of Galewood within the larger Austin community area, has enjoyed status as Level 1 school, the second-highest in the CPS ranking system.
But parents and teachers worry the school's climate has hurt kids' performance on tests.
In 2014, students performed better on reading and math tests than 78 percent of schools. In 2015, the numbers were 77 percent in reading and 73 percent in math, according to CPS data.
High turnover is contributing to the school's problems, critics charge.
The teacher retention rate at Sayre was 83 percent in 2014, according to records kept by the teachers union. That is on par with the district-wide average, according to the union, but it was the only time in four years the school's numbers have been in line with the district.
Sayre's retention rate was 74 percent in 2013 and 73 percent in 2012, according to the union. The school's teacher retention rate dipped to 61 percent in 2011, when the school lost 11 teachers.
Although officials with Chicago Public Schools would not provide data to confirm the union count, the situation is a huge change from 2001, when the retention rate was 97 percent, according to the U. of C.
The school has had to scramble to find bodies to staff classrooms in recent years, sources said.
"There are classrooms that have not had a regular teacher in a month and then you start to see the discipline problems," one teacher said. "Those kids' behavior goes down."
Parents said gym, music and technology teachers are moved into classrooms to teach other classes, leaving students to miss out on those subjects. Teachers, meanwhile, have less prep time since they must oversee their students during periods when students would normally go to gym or music.
One parent said his twin boys in fifth grade haven't had math homework since the beginning of the school year, when their teacher left.
"They say they're not being challenged," said David Ramirez, father of the two boys. "We were told they would have replacements by the end of winter break. That hasn't happened."
Randel Josserand, the CPS Network Chief that oversees Sayre, said his office has been working hard to fill open positions at the school. He said network employees have taught at the school when other options were not available.
"We're aggressively looking to staff teachers in these positions," Josserand said last week. "I'm confident we'll get these positions staffed in the next week or two."
Josserand acknowledged he met with parents twice in early January to discuss the parents' concerns about the "school climate and student bullying." He said his office is working on a plan to address those specific issues.
But teachers and parents said it will be tough to address if Ustabecir remains on staff.
Former teacher Nichole Devereaux said she remembers being scolded by Ustabecir while leading her classroom down a hallway. She said the principal saw her ask another teacher a question, then said, "How do you expect kids to be quiet if you aren't?"
Devereaux said she later left the school, saying that the principal's office wouldn't help her discipline problem kids.
Devereaux said she couldn't give unruly students detentions because Ustabecir would not allow teachers to stay after school to supervise detention — at least one other teacher complained that the principal has put up roadblocks to teachers who want to come early or stay late to do work. Devereaux said she had very little recourse to discipline kids, she said.
"That led to kids thinking they could get away with anything," said Devereaux, who left the school in January 2014. "I didn't feel I could keep my kids safe."
Current and former employees said they've never worked in an environment like Sayre's. Their thoughts on the school, recorded in a University of Chicago study, note the problems at the school.
The university's "5 Essentials" rankings rates schools in five categories the U. of C. says best indicate an institution's success or failure: effective leaders, collaborative teachers, supportive environment, ambitious instruction and involved families.
Sayre's "effective leadership" gets a score of 4 out of 100. The state average is 50 out of 100, according to the report. (Check out the school's ratings here.)
Teacher/principal trust, program coherence, quality professional development, instructional leadership and school commitment scored a 1 out of 100. The state average for each of those sub-categories is above 50 out of 100, according to the report.
Parents also rated the culture and climate poorly on the survey; the school rated "weak" or "very weak" in every category rated by the parents.
Some Push To Remove Principal
Ustabecir has been granted one four-year contract extension since she began at Sayre in the 2009-2010 school year. She has 1½ years left on her contract, sources said.
Ustabecir was one of 72 elementary school principals in 2012 to receive the district's first-ever performance pay boost.
Parents and teachers have different theories as to how the school's culture has denigrated despite its test scores and academic rankings staying relatively flat.
"We have great teachers," said one parent of a kindergartner who asked not to be named. "They don't know who they can [trust] and who they can't."
Despite past support for her, parent members of the Local School Council as well as other concerned parents asked Ustabecir to resign, a request she refused, according to council member Nilmari Donate. They then appealed to Josserand and CPS and started a petition to have her dismissed.
(Josserand met with the council on Jan. 5 in a two-hour closed session to discuss personnel at the school, including Ustabecir, according to sources with knowledge of the meeting.)
Still, not everyone on the council is ready to cast out Ustabecir.
Mattlin, who joined the council as a community representative in October, said much of the furor over Ustabecir started around then, despite her naysayers saying the problems have been years in the making.
"If the principal was the problem, the previous LSC wouldn't have renewed her contract," Mattlin said. "All of this changed with the new LSC."
Mattlin, who has had experience on other CPS local school councils, said he hopes the upcoming review of Ustabecir's job will be "more tied to data than feeling-based." He said test scores and other data will show that she has done a good, if unpopular, job.
"She is aware that maybe she needs to modify some things," Mattlin said. "Rocky transitions can totally gut the school."
Still, other members of the council and the public are looking for a way to remove Ustabecir.
Donate said the council has not yet considered a "no confidence" vote, a tool afforded to local school councils so they can formally voice displeasure. She said they are gathering signatures for a petition asking Ustabecir to resign.
"I believe in neighborhood schools," Donate said. "I want it to work, but I've determined that if the principal doesn't leave, we will."
For more neighborhood news, listen to DNAinfo Radio here: