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Teachers, staff at closed CPS schools open new chapter at start of academic year

08/23/2013  Chicago Nicole Tuttle visual art teacher Crane High School poses for photograph her office next stacked boxes Friday

08/23/2013 Chicago Nicole Tuttle, a visual art teacher at Crane High School, poses for a photograph in her office next to stacked boxes on Friday, August 23, 2013. Tuttle was phased out of her job and is searching for a new position after teaching at Crane for the past 9 years. | Michael Jarecki/For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: September 27, 2013 6:08AM



LaVita Buckner, a veteran elementary school teacher, is all set to get to know her new students.

Her classroom is clean and bright. A former student helped her decorate this week, before he heads off to college, putting up bulletin boards and arranging paper letters spelling out her name on the window next to her door.

But she’s not welcoming the usual crop of fourth-graders. As of Monday, the first day of school for Chicago Public Schools, Buckner teaches eighth-grade math in a new setting — Dodge Elementary Renaissance Academy — where she landed a job after Marconi Elementary closed for good, along with 47 other CPS schools.

Buckner knows she’s lucky to have found work, though she’s sorry that she couldn’t follow her students from Marconi, 230 N. Kolmar Ave., down the street in West Garfield Park to Tilton Elementary School, 223 N. Keeler. She had the qualifications and the high teacher ratings to go, but she confirmed just a few weeks ago there definitely wasn’t room for her there.

“To be honest, I thought I was going to go to Tilton,” Buckner said from Dodge, 431 N. Troy St. “I would have loved to have followed my students and my students wanted me to come with them, but it was out of my hands.”

On Monday morning, about 3,000 school staffers won’t be high-fiving kids in the same schoolyard as last year — or greeting students in the same main doorway or manning the same lunchroom.

About 850 teachers and staffers were laid off as part of the district’s shutdown of a record number of elementary schools. An additional 2,100 district employees got layoff slips because of budget cuts. And while many teachers, lunchroom workers, classroom and bus aides already have been reassigned to receiving schools or have found jobs on their own, they’re going to new places, starting from scratch with a brand-new bunch of faces.

Unable to find permanent gig

Nicole Tuttle, longtime art teacher, prepared all last week side-by-side with other teachers at Tilden Career Community Academy High School to welcome children today.

But Tuttle doesn’t really work at Tilden, 4747 S. Union. She was laid off from Crane High School, 2245 W. Jackson, which will close at the end of a three-year phaseout in June. Unable to find a permanent spot, she was sent through the teacher assignment pool to Tilden.

So the youngsters she’ll greet warmly in her 14th year of teaching aren’t her kids — and likely won’t ever be. Right now, she’s scheduled for only to two weeks at Tilden, where at least everyone is wonderful. And for the next five months she’ll go where the substitute pool sends her, unless she finds a full-time position in the meantime.

“Planning in a school where you’re not going to implement anything is really weird,” she said.

Everyone knew Crane was phasing out, but the elimination of art and music during its last year came as a surprise, Tuttle said from the classroom she was packing up, festooned with student-made ceramic figurines and stacked with boxes. At Crane, she had a kiln, and she saved ceramics lessons for the end of the year when the weather got warm and kids were likely to drop off from showing up.

“I figured I had one more year. I was pretty much blindsided,” she said. “The last month, since July 22, has pretty much been a nightmare, like I’ve gone through a breakup. I’m feeling better now.”

Because Crane is disappearing a year at a time, rather than consolidating into another school, there was no “welcoming school” to land at for a tenured teacher like Tuttle, no matter how good her ratings.

Her scramble to find a job landed her three interviews, but no offers: One was an elementary school, for grades she started her career in. Two were at high schools, which she prefers only because the older kids get art every day instead of once or twice a week.

At least she’s only responsible for herself and her mortgage. Health insurance worries her the most. Most teachers she knows also are in the substitute pool.

“All I’m hearing from my colleagues is, ‘I got another rejection letter, another rejection letter, another rejection letter,’ ” she said.

It seems harder for enrichment teachers like Tuttle.

“They’re going to staff academic positions before they staff music or art. Unfortunately they do it that way. It’s still unfair to these children, if they were at [The Chicago] Lab (School) or [The] Latin or Parker,” she said, referring to prestigious private schools, “this wouldn’t be happening.”

Landing at ‘hot,’ popular program

Darrell Kelly, a special education aide for two decades, filled a series of needs at Betsy Ross Elementary School, 6059 S. Wabash, until it closed in June.

Because he supports not only himself and his partner but also his mother and grandmother, Kelly said he was worried about his financial future.

“Everybody was,” Kelly said. “You really didn’t know what the landscape was.”

He was reassigned in July to Dulles Elementary, 6311 S Calumet, named by CPS to take in kids from Ross, and from what he has heard, his Ross colleagues have landed OK. But then his application was accepted at another receiving school, Wadsworth Elementary, which is set to get a new STEM program focusing on science, technology, engineering and math.

“STEM is the hot new thing now. To be on the cutting edge of what expectations are for youth, I love that idea,” Kelly said.

He expects to his routine at Wadsworth, 6650 S Ellis Ave., will be similar to what he did at Ross: Sit with kids at breakfast; help in special-ed classrooms during the day; monitor lunch and recess and patrol the building as the children leave.

“I just hope that this is a success for all the children,” Kelly said. “I just hope that all the kids stay focused and remember what the task at hand is, and that’s getting an education.

Determined to stay in teaching

Buckner was determined to stay in teaching. She has two sons at home who depend on her, including one in college. And she chose teaching very deliberately as her second career after years in the corporate sector. Buckner spent recesses in the schoolyard with her Marconi kids and broke up fights after school as kids were walking home.

“I spent the last five years there,” Buckner said. “So it’s getting to know a whole new family and children, and I really hate that the kids who depend on me, I won’t be there for them. It’s heartbreaking.”

Email: lfitzpatrick@suntimes.com

Twitter: @bylaurenfitz



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