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Despite pleas, CPS hands three schools to private operator

TonikDockery parent special needs child speaks against 'turnaround' process for McNair Elementary School. |   Al Podgorski / Sun-Times

Tonika Dockery, parent of a special needs child, speaks against a "turnaround" process for McNair Elementary School. | Al Podgorski / Sun-Times Media

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Updated: May 25, 2014 3:42PM

Supporters from three Chicago public elementary schools selected to have their entire staffs replaced pitched one last, passionate stand Wednesday— but all for naught.

A second-grade teacher at Gresham Elementary School, 8524 S. Green St., lamented giant class sizes in her room and others. The Local School Council chair at Dvorak Technology Academy, 3615 W. 16th St., pleaded for stability. And the mother of a special education student at McNair Elementary School, 4820 W. Walton St., cried that the program her son needs won’t be available any longer.

Their mantra was the same: If we had the same extra money CPS is about to give to the Academy for Urban School Leadership — an extra $300,000 in startup money plus $420 per student, per year for five years — you’d see results from us too.

And Pastor Clarence George, who said he has a daughter and grandson at Gresham, was outraged by the proposal. He said students like the way things are now.

“You asked for the faith-based to be a part of what’s going on in the community. You asked us to help you, but you don’t listen to us. ... We are saying we don’t want a turnaround school.”

For a moment, it seemed their begging worked.

Board member Andrea Zopp, who’s also president of the Urban League of Chicago, wondered why CPS wouldn’t grant McNair’s new principal, finishing her second year in charge, some time to turn the school around herself. Vice President Jesse Ruiz and Carlos Azcoitia also had tough questions about funding and student suspension rates. Even David Vitale, the board president who had been chairman of AUSL’s board until 2011, told Gresham’s principal her proposal to fix the school from the inside mimicked an existing CPS program that bolsters struggling schools.

Still, in the end, the board approved turning all three schools over to AUSL.

Two of the seven board members were absent, but four votes still were required to approve or deny a measure. All five members present voted to turn around Gresham, according to CPS spokesman Joel Hood, and Zopp cast the lone votes against changing McNair and Dvorak.

All but Azcoitia voted to hire AUSL; he abstained because he works for National Louis University which partners with AUSL for teacher training. Vitale did not abstain, Hood said, because his ties to AUSL are in the past.

About 1,250 students and 147 employees are affected, including 76 teachers. Staff ­­­— down to janitors and lunchroom workers — must reapply for their positions, according to the district.

A year after the board voted to shutter a record number of schools, CPS network chief Denise Little testified about the “difficult but necessary recommendations” to turn around the schools. She said AUSL, which already manages 29 schools serving 17,000 students, had some of the best growth on standardized test scores district-wide in three of its schools in their first year of AUSL management. Most of its elementary turnarounds outpaced the district average since AUSL took over, she said.

The three schools now slated for turnaround have been on academic probation for “a significant period of time,” with standardized test scores and attendance rates “far below the district average,” Little said. She did not mention that all 22 schools AUSL turned around also are on academic probation.

AUSL supporters also testified about their fears before their schools were changed — but then their children were given extra help.

“AUSL provides all the supports that I need to make sure that our babies get all the things they deserve. It’s their birthright,” said Pamela Creed, principal of Fuller School of Excellence in Bronzeville, which turned in 2012.

Gresham’s feisty principal, Diedrus Brown, said her school made gains when CPS allotted more money, progress that then dipped when the money went away.

“You destabilized our school,” she said to a cheering crowd. “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. It’s been proven, this money. You know what AUSL gets in terms of finances. Give some of that to the neighborhood schools. It’s Chicago Public Schools, not Chicago private schools.”

Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis asked the board, which is appointed by the mayor, to consider the culture in the three schools she said they’d be voting to destroy. And she, called again to replace them with an elected school board.

“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,” she said in a press release. “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.”

Lisa Russell, a parent Local School Council member at Dvorak, said CPS officials “waste a lot of people’s time.”

“They knew this is what they wanted in the beginning,” she said. “To me, it was already a done deal.”

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