LITTLE VILLAGE — Chicago Public Schools' plan to fire a Little Village special education teacher is a "political" attack, Cook County Commissioner Jesus "Chuy" Garcia said Tuesday.
Sarah Chambers, a lauded special education teacher at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy who has advocated for students with special needs across the city, was suspended from her job earlier this month as CPS officials move to fire her. At a rally in support of Chambers outside the school Tuesday, Garcia slammed CPS leaders, saying they aim to make an example of the eight-year educator because she stands up for fellow teachers.
"For anyone who knows anything or a little bit about politics in Chicago, this sure is smelling political with each and every passing day," Garcia said.
Chanting "We want Chambers, we want books, we want the money that Rahm took," parents, teachers and students rallied in support of the suspended teacher Tuesday afternoon.
CPS officials have accused Chambers of violating Illinois State Board of Education and Chicago Board of Education policies, but they have repeatedly declined to say which CPS policies Chambers allegedly violated.
Chambers said she is accused of encouraging a student to opt out of the PARCC test, an annual standardized test given to students in third through eighth grades and high school, a charge she denies.
Chambers was notified of the suspension April 6, right before spring break. She is expected to present her case against her dismissal to an independent Illinois State Board of Education hearing officer.
On Tuesday, Chambers said she remains on suspension with pay, and a hearing has not been scheduled.
An outspoken teacher who serves as co-chairwoman of the union's special education task force, Chambers previously has called on Mayor Rahm Emanuel and CPS to "stop this witch hunt."
She claims CPS is moving to fire her in retaliation for union organizing and for standing up for the needs of her special education students.
"I'm a distinguished teacher, and I've never been written up before," Chambers said. "I truly believe it's because I'm being a leader and advocating for the rights of special education students around the city."
Sarah Chambers, a special education teacher at Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy and advocate for students with special needs, has been suspended with pay since April 6. [Sarah Chambers]
At the rally Tuesday, Rod Estvan, an education policy analyst with Access Living, the city's largest disability rights group, said Chambers should be reinstated immediately.
"We believe she is being targeted because she has been an effective leader of special education teachers and has defended the rights of children to receive their appropriate services under federal law," Estvan said. "Right now in that building... there is no one teaching those children except an unqualified substitute."
John Toman, a seventh-grade math teacher at Saucedo, said he has worked with Chambers for eight years as she supported special education students in a traditional, inclusive classroom setting.
"She works before school, after school, on weekends, in the summer. She is one of those teachers who has always gone the extra mile," Toman said. "We need more teachers like Sarah, not less, especially with the shortage of special education teachers. It affects the entire school."
Rodrigo Anzures-Oyorzabal, advocacy manager at the Illinois Safe Schools Alliance, a group that works to support inclusion of LGBTQ students in schools, said Chambers has been a vocal supporter of LGBTQ students at Saucedo as the school's gay-straight alliance sponsor.
"We find it really disheartening that Sarah would be targeted and disciplined at a time when LGBTQ students should be affirmed, supported and lifted up more than ever," he said.
Crystal Rosas, an eighth-grade student at Saucedo, said Chambers "goes beyond" for her students "because she believes we are the best."
"Ms. Chambers has done her job to inform her students, and inform them of their rights," Rosas said. "We don't get teachers like Ms. Chambers often, but when we do, we need to show them the respect and the love they deserve."
Ines Figueroa is a parent of an eighth-grade special education students who was taught by Chambers.
"She is one of the most caring teachers I know," Figueroa said of Chambers. "We really need her here."
Garcia, an outspoken critic of Emanuel who ran against him for mayor, has known Chambers for several years. He called the teacher a "dedicated, passionate and compassionate" educator.
"She should be brought back to Saucedo as soon as possible so she can resume the passion of her life, which is to be an excellent public school teacher," Garcia said.
Parents and teachers have launched a petition online in support of Chambers, urging CPS not to fire her. As of Tuesday night, more than 3,400 people had signed.
Teachers and parents host a rally outside Maria Saucedo Scholastic Academy in support of suspended special education teacher Sarah Chambers. [DNAinfo/Stephanie Lulay]