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Gresham Elementary principal fights CPS school ‘turnaround’ plan

Chicago Police patrol neighborhood as children arrive Gresham Elementary School first day classes Aug. 26. 2013 Chicago.  |

Chicago Police patrol the neighborhood as children arrive at Gresham Elementary School on the first day of classes on Aug. 26. 2013 in Chicago. | M. Spencer Green/AP

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Updated: May 9, 2014 6:18AM

If Gresham Elementary School Principal Diedrus Brown is going to lose her job anyway, she said Monday she’ll go down telling the truth.

The school she has led for the past decade is one of three slated for a staff reboot, which Chicago Public Schools calls a “turnaround,” saying that Gresham’s academics arepoor enough to warrant a full restaffing.

But Brown denies her school is among the worst academically, blatantly accusing the district of other motives for choosing her school to hand over to a nonprofit turnaround organization with past ties to the school board president.

“Why are they really proposing to make Gresham a turnaround school? It is not for declining academic or probation status. . . . It is because of the money and they want this building!!!!!!” she wrote in all caps in a letter she addressed to Gresham’s parents, staff and community. The letter contained the school’s standardized test scores from when she became principal 10 years ago. The scores have decreased since 2011 but showed gains and dips overall rather than consistent decline.

“I prayed on this at church yesterday,” she told the Chicago Sun-Times on Monday. “I can’t go down like this.”

Brown will join Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis outside the school Tuesday to try to persuade CPS — and the Board of Education, which is slated to vote on the turnarounds at the end of the month ­— to leave Gresham alone. On Tuesday evening, she’ll also meet supporters from Gresham and the other two schools recommended for turnaround — Dvorak Technology Academy in North Lawndale and McNair Elementary School in South Austin — outside the Kenwood home of Board President David Vitale.

Gresham was on last year’s initial school closing list. Then it was named as a possible co-location with a charter school or maybe a receiving school for children from a closed school nearby. The charter never moved in, but like other consolidated schools, Gresham received summer renovations: air conditioning in classrooms, wheelchair-accessible ramps on two sides of the building and two elevators. Meanwhile, she lost six positions this year: several teachers, aides, a student advocate who taught her kids life skills, and a parent advocate who had been part of the school for decades.

“If you want the building because you spent all this money on it, my bottom line is don’t fire all the teachers,” she said. “Give them a job and take the building.”

“Don’t call it a turnaround because of the academics. There are many, many schools worse than Gresham,” she said, listing 11 nearby that have been on probation at least at long as hers, “even AUSL schools.”

AUSL refers to the Academy for Urban School Leadership, the nonprofit management organization hired by CPS to rehire all new staff, down to janitors, and restart the school for the same students. Of AUSL’s 29 schools, 16 also are on probation and have a Level 3 rating.

CPS spokesman Joel Hood said the district chose the three potential turnarounds from schools that have been on academic probation for at least a year, which is what Illinois School Code and CPS’ performance policy require. District officials began looking at schools that held its lowest ranking, Level 3, for the last two years and were on probation. Then CPS weeded out schools that took in children from consolidations, schools getting special help from the Office of Strategic School Support and AUSL schools.

The final list was chosen based on input from CPS managers who oversee clusters of schools, quality of academics, school culture and a comparison of performance data to other CPS schools.

“As we’ve said before, Gresham is being recommended for turnaround because CPS believes that’s what is in the best interest of students and the school community,” Hood wrote in an email.

He did not address whether other schools performed worse than Gresham and did not answer questions about how much money CPS spent on Gresham’s improvements.

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