Supporters of Dvorak Technology Academy in North Lawndale held a rally Monday night in a last-ditch effort to save their school from having its entire staff fired and replaced next year by the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), a controversial school turnaround contractor.
Parents, students and other community stakeholders held a protest outside of Dvorak to call on the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district to put in place a moratorium on school turnarounds.
Angela Gordon, Dvorak's Local School Council (LSC) chair, said Monday's event would also include a cookout designed to bring together community members and inform them about the proposed turnaround. The goal is to encourage as many people as possible to attend the Chicago Board of Education's upcoming monthly meeting. On Wednesday, the board is slated to vote on whether AUSL will be allowed to turn around Dvorak as well as two other schools on academic probation, Ronald E. McNair in Austin and Walter Q. Gresham in the Auburn-Gresham neighborhood.
Dvorak has a Level 3 academic rating, which is the lowest on the scale, and has been on probation for the past seven years. The percent of students meeting or exceeding standards on the Illinois Standards Achievement Test (ISAT) has also consistently been below the district average, according to CPS officials.
Instead of having AUSL take over Dvorak, Gordon said the school's LSC has an alternative plan for improving academic performance that does not involve firing and replacing all of the school's staff. The LSC will formally present its proposal to the board of education on Wednesday.
"We do have other methods of turnaround ... and we're just asking that they give us a chance to do it in-house," Gordon said. "Am I saying that we should not get rid of any staff? No, I'm not saying that. I'm saying that there may be some [teachers] that need to go. But at this point, we don't want to just get rid of all of our staff ... Let us decide at the Local School Council and the administration of this school who needs to go and who needs to stay."
Gordon said the stability at Dvorak has "been very shaky for the last couple of years" and is a factor behind the school's less than stellar academic performance.
Dvoark, for example, has been placed in six different school networks over the past six years, its current principal has held the position for only two years and about 50 percent of its educators are fairly new teachers, Gordon said. Additionally, Dvorak has more than 150 students who are identified as homeless. The school has also received about 230 new students this year from recently-closed schools. Because Dvorak is not a designated CPS welcoming school for students displaced by the latest round of school closings, it did not get extra resources from the district to take in the new students.
"My concern is that socially and emotionally, our children won't adapt well to new staff, and I don't think that our staff is to blame for the low performance," Gordon said. "We haven't had the resources we need to be able to perform better ... As parents, we just feel like our children are more than a number. To CPS, they're just test scores."
About 30 percent of the student body at Dvorak has behavioral issues or special needs, explained Valerie Leonard, co-founder of the Lawndale Alliance. And last school year, Dvorak's mobility rate, or the number of students transferring in and out of the school, was 33.7 percent. By comparison, the district average was 19 percent, Leonard said.
If students are already "experiencing social and emotional problems at home, what makes you think that turning the school around is going to help," Gordon asked. "I have sixth graders walking around crying all day, everyday because they're scared that their teacher is going to lose her job."
Given the recent influx of students, Dvorak could really use more staff members, Gordon said. The school currently has a total enrollment of nearly 600 students, she noted.
"We have some classes with 34, 35 students per one teacher," she stressed, noting that AUSL's teacher to student ratio is not that large. "Give us the same resources that you plan to give AUSL and allow us to use those resources to perform better. However, if we can't perform better at the end of that cycle, then maybe you could look into the AUSL turnaround."
A spokesperson for CPS could not be reached for comment by deadline.
Leonard argued that it costs taxpayers more than $20 million annually in operating and capital expenses when AUSL turns around a school. AUSL currently manages 29 public schools in Chicago.
"We think that we will probably get a better bang for our buck if they let educators do it without firing the staff and paying the extra overhead for AUSL," she said.
But Deirdre Campbell, a spokeswoman for AUSL, pushed back on those figures, explaining that AUSL gets a one-time fee of $300,000 after a school turnaround is approved. AUSL uses those funds in the summer to bring on staff, she said. AUSL also receives per-pupil funding from the school district, but only for the first five years it manages a school. Campbell said AUSL gets $420 per student. And with those resources, AUSL is able to hire two additional human supports at a school, on average. AUSL also fundraises for resources outside of what CPS provides in the first five years.
As an example, Campbell said AUSL has pumped $6 million dollars into its turnaround schools over the past five years for things like fine arts, sports, tutors and academic enrichment.
Leonard, however, pointed out that AUSL-managed schools overall are not doing better than state, district and local community averages in terms of academic performance.
But Campbell made a point to stress that AUSL takes over schools that start as the lowest-performing schools in the district.
"To evaluate where they currently stand is probably less effective than evaluating the growth over time, because it's really about growth at AUSL schools," she said.
On average, Campbell said AUSL's turnaround schools have outperformed the district in terms of ISAT gains every year for the last six years. Also, AUSL turnaround schools outperformed the district last year when it comes to the percent of students meeting or exceeding the national average growth on the NWEA Measures of Academic Progress (MAP) by 6 percent in reading and 8 percent in math, she said. And one of AUSL's schools in North Lawndale, Theodore Herzl Elementary, was within the top 10 percent for ISAT score growth in the 2012-2013 school year, Campbell added.
"I appreciate that all parents want the best education for their students, and that this process is hard," Campbell said. "And at the end of the day, since 2008 our schools have surpassed the district average in terms of gains on the ISAT and we outpaced the district in terms of percent of students meeting national growth targets in math and reading."
Meanwhile, Gordon said AUSL-managed schools in North Lawndale have higher suspension rates than other public schools in the community.
In response, Campbell said AUSL is working to "decrease suspension rates at our schools just as the district is."
"To accomplish that, we have been very intentional this year in putting significant supports at schools," she said. "We're also making sure that we're utilizing things like in-school suspensions, after school detention [and] Saturday detention."
Overall, Leonard called it "unfortunate" that CPS wants to use a "private sector model to address a public problem."
"It’s not working," Leonard stressed. "It’s unfortunate that we’re looking at our children, we’re looking at our schools, the same way we’d look at troubled companies. We go in, fire the whole staff, take it over and then hope that things turn around. That may work for some, and not all, corporations ... but the evidence shows that it does not work in education."
CPS has already held community meetings and hearings to gather public input about the proposed school actions at Dvorak, Gresham and McNair. But Leonard said the turnaround hearings held earlier this month were a "farce."
"These hearings are not based on the merit of the case, so to speak," she explained. "You can make the most compelling case. I could provide data to support any argument that I make. The parents can be very emotional. They can provide you with all kinds of facts, and none of that matters. At the end of the day, what the hearing officer is really evaluating is whether or not CPS followed proper procedure in going through the turnaround process, and that’s all that matters."
Gordon said she believes the Chicago Board of Education has already made a decision regarding Dvorak's proposed turnaround.
"However, they're not letting us know, and if that's the case [that Dvorak will be turned around], I'm not pleased. Because if you can't adhere to what the parents want, then who are you going to listen to and when," Gordon asked. "We've been rallying, we've been meeting, we've been doing whatever we could to get our point across to CPS."
Be sure to check back with Progress Illinois for our coverage of Wednesday's Chicago Board of Education meeting.