The principal of a South Side elementary school is pushing back against the Chicago Public Schools’ (CPS) turnaround proposal, alleging officials are more concerned about money than students’ best interests.
“It is not about declining enrollment and the capability of the administration or the teachers, it is not about that. This proposed (turnaround) is about money and what was spent on this building. They want this building,” said Diedrus Brown, principal of Walter Q. Gresham Elementary School, located at 8524 S. Green St. in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood.
With support from the Chicago Teachers Union, parents and community activists, Brown criticized CPS’ plan to have the controversial school turnaround contractor Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) overhaul the entire staff at the elementary school next year.
Gresham Elementary is one of three schools on academic probation that the district wants AUSL to turn around. The schools on the turnaround list are Dvorak Math and Science Technology Academy in the North Lawndale neighborhood and Ronald E. McNair Elementary School in the city's Austin neighborhood.
The Chicago Board of Education is expected to vote on the proposed school actions at its next meeting on April 23.
But Brown, who has been principal at Gresham Elementary since 2004, said she is not going to let AUSL take over her school without a fight.
“My integrity is not going to allow me to just let them do this,” she said.
Brown claims Gresham Elementary, a Level 3 school that has been on academic probation for six years, is not the worst academically. She boasted that during her tenure as principal, the number of students to meet or exceed state standards on the composite Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) has nearly doubled.
She also alleged that, with more support and funding from the district, the school would be in a better position academically. Gresham Elementary was forced to cut six positions — three of which were teachers — when CPS switched to a per-student budgeting system last year.
“With CPS making cuts like that, I don’t understand how CPS expects Gresham to become more than a Level 3 school,” said Eddie Ferrell, whose three children are in preschool and 2nd and 5th grades at Gresham Elementary. “In my opinion, CPS is bleeding the resources from the school, in an attempt to make the school fail.”
Last year, Gresham Elementary was spared from closure and co-location with a charter school, but even still, Brown said, the school saw infrastructure upgrades, such as two elevators and air conditioning, making the building valuable for the district.
“If CPS wants this building, and wants to sell it, I can’t do anything about that,” she said. “But don’t displace the teachers, the staff and put the entire community in an uproar, it’s not fair.”
Ollie Clements, who has two grandsons enrolled in the 2nd and 8th grades at Gresham, agreed with Brown.
“We do not plan to allow the board of education just to take over our school and do a turn around, our teachers are fully capable of teaching our children,” she said. “If we are given the resources to do what we need to do, to hire the teachers we need to hire, then we could make steps forward.
Here is more from Tuesday’s press conference:
Several speakers on Tuesday also questioned CPS board members’ ties to AUSL. Chicago Board of Education President David Vitale previously served as the school turnaround contractor's chairman.
“Do not think for one minute that this is about the children,” said Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. “This is about adult interests and the people who benefit politically and economically from them.”
Lewis, who called the turnaround proposal a “hostile takeover,” renewed the union’s call for an elected Chicago school board.
“The school board right now is not accountable, and the decisions that they make are basically extremely political,” she said.
CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett issued this statement to the media following Tuesday’s press conference:
We do not take a decision to bring systemic change to a school lightly, but when change is in the best interest of our students, we will not waver. We are committed to ensuring all of our students have access to a high-quality education and right now that is not what the students at Gresham are receiving. For more than a decade, AUSL has improved schools from the ground up, showing increased attendance rate, academic growth and engaging school environments that put student on a path to success. Prior to taking its final recommendations to the Board, CPS 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% college ready and 100% college bound.
CPS is slated to hold a public hearing on the three proposed school turnarounds Wednesday from 5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. at district headquarters, located at 125 S. Clark St.