A passionate crowd begged the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district at a community meeting Wednesday night to spare Dvorak Technology Academy from having its entire staff fired and replaced next school year.
The district wants the controversial school turnaround contractor Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) to manage Dvorak, located in Chicago's North Lawndale community, due to the elementary school's less than stellar academic performance.
"If our school is turned around, my concern is that our students who have challenges and issues will be turned away only to end up on the streets of our community," said Tracie Worthy, a member of the North Lawndale Community Action Council who previously served on Dvorak's Local School Council (LSC). "I'm asking that CPS provide the necessary support for Dvorak to stay open as a community school to serve our students ... What we need now are resources and support from CPS to make a difference for our school."
Dvorak has the lowest Level 3 academic rating and has been on probation for the past seven years, according to CPS. The percent of students meeting or exceeding standards on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) has "consistently remained below the district average," said Wanda Washington, CPS' chief of schools for Network 5, which is in charge of Dvorak and other West Side schools.
Chanise Stephens, a 6th grade Dvorak teacher, acknowledged that the school's ISAT scores "do look poor." However, she said the students' marks on another exam, the NWEA Measures of Academic Progress, are getting better.
"Our students are still behind, but they're growing," Stephens stressed. "They are improving through our encouragement and our love."
West Side Chicago Ald. Michael Chandler (24th), who is against the proposed turnaround, attended the meeting and pointed out that Dvorak's current principal has been at the school for just over a year. The school's leadership team is working toward improved academic performance, he said, but they need more time to implement their programs.
Switching up the school's staff at this time would have a "very disruptive and destabilizing impact on the learning environment of students at Dvorak," the alderman stressed. State Rep. Arthur Turner (D-Chicago) and a representative from U.S. Rep. Danny Davis' (D-IL,7) office were also in attendance and spoke in opposition of the proposed school action.
People at the meeting frequently cited a lack of resources as the driver behind the school's poor performance.
Dvorak educators have to "reach into (their) pockets everyday" to help pay for classroom necessities, said Barbara McIntyre, an 11-year special education teacher at the school, located at 3615 W. 16th St.
In addition to Dvorak, CPS has proposed having AUSL run two other elementary schools on academic probation next year — Ronald E. McNair in Austin and Walter Q. Gresham in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood. If the Chicago Board of Education approves the school actions at its April monthly meeting, AUSL will bring on its own principal, faculty and staff at the three schools after CPS fires all of the existing personnel.
Notably, Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale and CPS Chief Administrative Officer Tim Cawley previously held high-ranking positions at AUSL. Critics of the turnaround contractor have argued that is a conflict of interest.
AUSL currently manages 29 Chicago public schools and already controls nearly every school in or around Douglas Park in North Lawndale.
"Is AUSL trying to take over our land or do they really want our school," asked Dvorak parent Candace Stigler. "We have to wonder if this is part of a larger plan to consolidate AUSL's influence in the North Lawndale community and to corner the real estate market around Douglas Park, Douglas Boulevard and the 16th Street corridor. A number of AUSL board members are venture capitalists and invest in real estate and other projects."
Valerie Leonard with the Lawndale Alliance echoed similar sentiments, saying the proposed Dvorak turnaround really seems like a "land grab" for AUSL.
"We can't have that," she stressed. Click through for Progress Illinois' previous reporting on AUSL's influence in Chicago's North Lawndale neighborhood.
Leonard implored district officials to let the current Dvorak staff create its own turnaround plan. Dvorak's LSC has already unanimously adopted a resolution against having AUSL take over the school and has asked CPS for an opportunity to draw up an alternative plan for school improvement.
"We believe that if you gave us the extra $400 per pupil that you give AUSL that there is no way we could fail," Leonard argued.
Meanwhile, Pauline Lipman, professor of educational policy studies and director of the Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago, called turnarounds "another version of school closings."
Last year, CPS broke a national record when it closed 50 "underutilized" neighborhood schools due in part to the district's $1 billion budget shortfall. Before the board of education approved the school closings, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett promised to install a five-year moratorium on future "CPS facility closures", but the district left the door open for other school actions.
"The students stay in the school, but the school's history, culture, and staff ... are wiped clean," Lipman said, referring to school turnarounds. "The three proposed turnaround schools will give AUSL a total of 32 schools concentrated on the West, Southwest, and South Sides of the city. What does this mean? Number one: CPS is handing over African-American schools to AUSL. Dvorak and the other two schools serve almost entirely African-American students."
According to the Chicago Teachers Union, more than 97 percent of the students at Dvorak, Gresham and McNair are African-American and 98 percent are low-income.
"AUSL has a higher proportion of black students than the district," Lipman added. "Seventy-four percent compared to 40 percent. The three additional schools would give AUSL even more African-American schools, and based on past practice that means black teachers in this school would not be rehired."
Seventy percent of the educators at Dvorak are black.
Additionally, Lipman pointed out that AUSL schools do not perform better than other public schools.
"The data do not support it," she stressed, adding that AUSL schools also "suspend more students than any other CPS network."
CPS spokesman Joel Hood issued this statement to the media following the community hearing:
For more than a decade, AUSL has improved schools from the ground up, showing increased attendance rate and academic growth, giving students a chance to receive the rich academic experience and engaging school environments they deserve. The district undertook an exhaustive review process to determine which schools would most benefit from AUSL's proven approach to improving schools, which provides students with a rigorous academic experience and a positive school learning environment for them to reach their fullest potential. CPS and AUSL will continue to work with the community and listen to their feedback throughout this process to ensure we are putting kids first and working together for all of our children to be 100 percent college ready and 100 percent college bound.
CPS is slated to hold a public hearing on the three proposed school turnarounds on April 9 from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at district headquarters, located at 125 S. Clark St.