PI Original Ellyn Fortino Wednesday April 9th, 2014, 8:56am

Education Activists Take Fight Against Turnarounds To Home Of Board Of Ed President

About 60 education activists and members of Action Now demonstrated outside of Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale's home Tuesday evening in protest of plans to shake up the staff at three elementary schools next year. Progress Illinois was there for the protest.

About 60 education activists and members of Action Now demonstrated outside of Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale's home Tuesday evening in protest of plans to shake up the staff at three elementary schools next year.

The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district wants the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a controversial school turnaround contractor, to take over three schools on academic probation —  Ronald E. McNair in Austin, Dvorak Technology Academy in North Lawndale and Walter Q. Gresham in Auburn-Gresham. All three schools have CPS' worst Level 3 academic rating.

If the Chicago Board of Education approves the proposed school actions at its monthly meeting on April 23, current employees at the schools will be fired and replaced. 

Vitale previously served as the chairman of AUSL, which currently manages 29 Chicago public schools. Vitale's ties to AUSL is suspicious, according to the activists, who chanted "No more turnarounds!" outside the board president's home in Chicago's Kenwood neighborhood.

"That's a conflict of interest," said Dvorak's Local School Council Chair Angela Gordon. "We've tried to contact him on several occasions so that it wouldn't have to be a public event, but of course no response. This is just what we feel like we have to do at this point...Whatever it takes, that's what we're going to do to be able to save our schools. "

The proposed turnarounds come nearly a year after the Chicago Board of Education voted to close a record-breaking 50 neighborhood schools last May. CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett put in place a five-year moratorium on future "CPS facility closures" following the last wave of school closings, but that measure does not apply to turnarounds or other school actions.

Community opposition to the turnarounds has been growing since CPS announced its proposed school actions late last month. Following a press conference Tuesday where Gresham supporters spoke out against having AUSL take over the school, Byrd-Bennett said the school district "will not waver" when "change is in the best interest of our students."

Byrd-Bennett's statement was a slap in the face to Ollie Clements, who has two grandsons that attend Gresham. If CPS will not waver, then why hold community meetings and hearings to gather public input about the proposed school actions, Clements asked. 

"That [statement] tells us a lot, because that means ... she's not going through this whole [public input] process," Clements said.

She also pointed out that CPS spent money on recent upgrades at Gresham, such as two elevators and air conditioning, to accommodate a charter school that was supposed to share the building with Gresham this school year. The charter school ended up not moving into the building.

It bothers Clements that CPS was able to find funds to pay for the upgrades, yet the district has not provided additional resources to the school to help with problems like classroom overcrowding.

"They didn't share any additional resources with us," she said. "We asked for additional resources. Of course, we did not get anything. We have a class size of second graders of 32 kids in a class. That is really overwhelming for any teacher....But if we don't have the resources, how can we hire any new teachers to help?"

She added that AUSL has an unfair advantage because it has a bulk of resources to help it improve a school's academic performance.

AUSL comes "into a setting where the children are making progress, where there's an upward swing, so when they come in and they start teaching to the kids there, they'll take the credit for having made that progress, and that's really not fair," she stressed. "That's not giving the credit to the teachers that are there doing more than an adequate job."

Others at the action noted that AUSL schools, for the most part, are not outperforming traditional public schools.

"It is a fact that AUSL schools, charter schools — the book is still out on them," said Gresham Principal Diedrus Brown. "Their children are not performing better than public schools." 

Brown explained that Gresham's academic performance has shown progress over recent years. 

"I want you to know in 2011, we ended that year as a Level 2 school, and if you could show me 50 schools in Chicago Public Schools that have had an upward trend every year, you can have my paycheck," she said. "Every school fluctuates because the children are in and out of the schools."

Supporters of Dvorak argued that CPS has put the school at an academic disadvantage. Gordon said Dvorak has been placed in six different school networks over the past six years.

"Every time they move our network, they move us to a higher performing network, so that leaves us at the bottom of the network," she said. "At this point, I'm starting to believe that it has nothing to do with test scores. I think now it's mainly about the land that they want. We have a totally renovated building, elevators, computer labs, all that."

Almost all of the public schools in the North Lawndale community are already charter schools or AUSL turnarounds, Gordon noted.

Gordon's eight year-old daughter, Miracle, attends Dvorak.

"We have some sort of bond with our teachers and ... I don't think AUSL is right to take our teachers away," the third grader said. "It's wrong ... I would hate to see (the teachers) go."

Meanwhile, Action Now member and CPS parent Zerlina Smith pointed out that 21 percent of McNair students have an individualized education program, or an IEP.

"Why would you turn around a school with that many IEPs knowing that there’s not another school on the West Side that can handle that," she asked, adding that Dvorak also "takes in students that no one else wants."

Additionally, activists said the proposed school turnarounds would mean a big loss of good-paying jobs and experienced teachers of color.

If teachers at the three schools are fired, Clements said she is specifically concerned about what will happen to the long-time, veteran educators.

"Is that AUSL group, are they going to invite them back in," she asked. "No. They're going to be out and get jobs wherever they can, and we don't want our teachers unemployed."

Currently, African-American educators represent 52 percent of the staff at McNair, 70 percent of the teachers at Dvorak and 65 percent of the educators at Gresham, according to the Chicago Teachers Union.

Action Now believes that the "turnaround method contributes to the current trend of education reform that seeks to replace experienced teachers of color with a younger, whiter and cheaper teaching staff," a news release from the group reads.

The group noted that after AUSL was approved to take over Amos Alonzo Stagg Elementary in 2012, the percentage of teachers at the school who were African American dropped from 80 percent to 35 percent.

As the activists crowded the walkway in front of Vitale's home, they also reiterated their desire for an elected Chicago school board.

"We know that the mayor of Chicago has handpicked his board," Smith stressed. "We need an elected school board official. We need to have someone who looks like us, who comes from our communities to defend us ... The privatization of education cannot continue to happen in the city of Chicago."

CPS will hold a public hearing on the three proposed school turnarounds tonight from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at district headquarters, located at 125 S. Clark St.

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