Despite opposition from a swath of parents and community members, the Chicago Board of Education voted on Wednesday to “turnaround” three underperforming elementary schools at the request of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district. Progress Illinois provides a recap of what happened at Wednesday’s board of education meeting.
Despite opposition from a swath of parents and community members, the Chicago Board of Education voted on Wednesday to “turnaround” three underperforming elementary schools at the request of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district.
Come next year, the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a controversial school turnaround contractor, will manage Dvorak Technology Academy in North Lawndale, Ronald E. McNair in Austin and Walter Q. Gresham in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood.
The board voted unanimously to turn around Gresham. The vote was 4-1 for Dvorak and McNair, with the lone ‘no’ vote coming from board member Andrea Zopp. Board member Carlos Azcoitia abstained from separate votes to enter into contracts with AUSL for turnaround services at the schools.
All staff members at Dvorak, Gresham and McNair will be fired, and AUSL will hire on the principal, faculty and staff at the three schools. The newly-approved turnarounds add to the 29 Chicago public schools that AUSL already manages.
AUSL has come under fire for its academic performance and disciplinary policies at some of its turnaround schools. Critics also say it is a conflict of interest that Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale previously served as AUSL’s chairman.
All three schools have a Level 3 academic rating, the worst in the district. According to Denise Little, CPS’ chief officer of networks, McNair has been on probation for the past 14 years, and Gresham and Dvorak have been on probation for the last six and seven years, respectively.
In remarks after the vote, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said the school actions were a necessary means to improve the chronically underperforming schools.
“There have been substantial additional resources provided for these schools, and we haven’t seen the kind of sustained gains that our children should have and that we expect our children to have,” Byrd-Bennett said.
Fired educators at the three schools will be able to re-apply for their jobs, the CPS CEO said.
“I would hope that the teachers there would be re-applying and trained so that they can remain a part of that school,” Byrd-Bennett said. “The fact of the matter is we have to do something different if we expect our children to achieve differently.”
But Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis is pushing back against claims that the schools received the resources necessary to see marked improvement.
“After being starved of resources for many consecutive years, Dvorak, Gresham and McNair, three promising elementary schools, were set up for failure by our school district,” Lewis said in a statement following the board’s vote. “While we are proud of the members we have working in ‘turnaround schools’ operated by the Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL), our issue is that this dubious, corporate reform model has proven to do little but take over schools discredited by CPS and then, after receiving millions of dollars in support, take credit for the sudden but short-lived academic success among students.”
At today’s board meeting, Gresham parent Clarence George was one among dozens of community members who spoke out against the turnarounds as well as CPS officials during public comment.
“Ms. Byrd-Bennett, I’d like to say to you be very careful when it comes to Mr. Rahm Emanuel,” George said. “If he can turn around [on Jean Claude]-Brizard, don’t think he can’t turn around [on] you.”
Prior to the vote, Zopp noted that Dvorak’s principal is fairly new. Principal Cheryl White, who has been at Dvorak for about two years, is also one of the district’s “better recognized” principals, Zopp said.
“Why not give her a chance to turn the school around,” Zopp asked.
Little responded, “I cannot say that she is one of our better recognized principals.”
“After having conversations with the chief of networks for that network, she supports the recommendation that this might not be the best principal to turn that school around,” Little said.
Before the vote, CTU’s Lewis asked board members to consider the schools’ climate in addition to test results.
“When we look at Gresham, it’s ranked as organized, but it also has very high marks in collaborative teaching and involved families,” Lewis said. “McNair has very strong marks in ambitious instruction and supportive environment. I really think it’s extremely important that we take those climate surveys into consideration before making a decision about changing the entire climate of a school.”
Little noted that 13 out of 16 AUSL turnaround schools “outpaced the district average on ISAT [Illinois Standards Achievement Test] meets or exceeds growth since undergoing the turnaround process.” AUSL’s turnaround schools have outpaced the district, Little said, on the NWEA Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) and have exceeded growth in math and science.
Pamela Creed, principal of AUSL’s Fuller School of Excellence, a turnaround school in the Bronzeville neighborhood, explained that AUSL provides all the supports needed “to make sure that our babies are actually getting what they deserve.”
Fuller is in its second year as an AUSL turnaround. During Fuller’s first year, the school placed in the top 10 percent in the district when it comes to ISAT growth in 2013. The school also exceeded the district average for students meeting or exceeding growth targets in reading and math on the 2013 NWEA Map, Creed said. Additionally, attendance at the school increased by 2 percentage points.
But Dion Stone, a McNair parent and LSC member, said he was offended to hear AUSL supporters tout the schools’ programs and test scores.
“Big-budget AUSL can offer all of that,” he said. “McNair’s budget has been cut by $300,000.”
When approved to provide turnaround services, AUSL gets a one-time cash infusion of $300,000. It also gets per-pupil funding from the district, which other CPS schools receive. On top of the base per-pupil funding, CPS also gives AUSL $420 per student in extra funds for the first five years of the turnaround.
Gresham Principal Diedrus Brown, who has been a vocal turnaround opponent over recent weeks, noted that the number of Gresham students meeting or exceeding state standards on the composite ISAT nearly doubled during her tenure as principal. Brown, who has been Gresham’s principal since 2004, said the school made the most gains in years when the district provided additional funds.
“You destabilized our school for the past two years by taking money away,” Brown said. “I will stand here and say, ‘Yes, I could have told you the scores were going down.’ I lost positions. I lost programs, and that’s what happens … I’m asking you to stabilize our school again. Give us some of the money you have already earmarked, and our scores will go up.”
Echoing what Byrd-Bennett noted, board President Vitale explained that there have been past efforts to provide additional funding to the schools.
“At least two of these schools in the past several years have in fact received additional funding beyond base funding for improvement, and in one case millions of dollars,” Vitale said. “It’s not like this district in the past hasn’t provided additional over and above all of the equitable funding that they deserve to try to help improve these schools.”
Following the board’s vote, Action Now released the following statement blasting the board for “plac[ing] political objectives above the children and communities they are supposed to represent”:
We are deeply disappointed in today’s decision to turn around three neighborhood schools that continues the privatization of our city’s education system and the attack on minority neighborhoods.
The Board of Education has once again placed political objectives above the children and communities they are supposed to represent. The hand picked board continues their refusal to look at the facts and to listen to the children and parents most affected by their decisions.
Tonya Griffin, an Action Now member, has a special needs child in the fifth grade at McNair Elementary. “My son is in IEP and it would be difficult to find a school that meets his needs. There are not many options on the west side without McNair.”
The mayor and CPS CEO are fond of saying that they want kids at a 100% graduation rate and 100% college ready. Their market-based solution to privatize Chicago’s education guarantees failure based on that metric. Reliance solely on standardized testing data inhibits decision makers from viewing the entire picture. We refuse to accept the market-based approach that makes winners and losers out of our children.
Lewis called the approved turnarounds a “hostile takeover” of the neighborhood schools and also renewed CTU’s call for an elected school board.
“Today’s hostile takeover of three of our neighborhood school communities by the mayor’s handpicked Board of Education makes it quite clear that there is a war on older, African-American teachers and administrators as well as the school communities in which they serve,” Lewis said.
“Nearly a year ago we witnessed thousands of parents, community leaders, clergy, educators and students begging to be heard as the Board destroyed nearly 50 schools. Today parents, administrators and teachers were forced to beg the Board of Ed for the right to a future only to be slapped down and have their cries fall on deaf ears,” she added. “Where are the leaders in our school district who are protecting the interests of these students and their constituents? This is why we stand strong in our call for a democratically elected, representative school board.”