Tribune reporter

Chicago’s Board of Education listened to impassioned pleas for more funding and calls for a second chance before turning over three failing schools to a private operator, the Academy for Urban School Leadership, which conducts staff overhauls or “turnarounds.”

Gresham Elementary in the South Side’s Auburn-Gresham neighborhood, McNair Elementary in Austin on the West Side and Dvorak Math Science Technology Academy in North Lawndale will all see the ouster of their staffs — everyone from the principal to the lunchroom worker — at the end of the school year.

AUSL, which runs 29 other schools in the district, will then hire new staff for the schools and train them before reopening in the fall for the same group of students. AUSL is not a charter school, but is similar in that it is given autonomy by CPS over how to run its schools. AUSL schools hire teachers who are members of the Chicago Teachers Union.

Gresham Principal Diedrus Brown and parents from the other two targeted schools urged board members to give their neighborhood schools the extra money budgeted for AUSL. Community activists and educators complained that the schools had been starved of resources for many years, leading to failure. But under AUSL, each turnaround school will get an additional $300,000 next year and $420 more per student each year, for the next five years.

Brown said Gresham’s scores climbed by about 20 percentage points when funding to the school was increased, only to drop again when the district began cutting school budgets.

“You destabilized our school for the past two years by taking money away,” Brown said. “I could’ve told you scores were going down. I’m asking you to stabilize our schools again. Give us the money and our scores will go up.”

She reminded board members that the district was named Chicago Public Schools, “not Chicago Private Schools.”

With last year’s closings of nearly 50 schools, and more privately run charter schools added this year, critics are worried CPS is depriving poorly performing neighborhood schools of funds and investing that money instead into private models.

In Dvorak’s case, the AUSL takeover of a fifth North Lawndale neighborhood school means 68 percent of the community’s schools are now privately managed.

Testimony by parents whose schools were turned around by AUSL parents drew “boos” from opponents. One parent’s praise of AUSL’s student trips to food and entertainment venues like Dave & Buster’s and Medieval Times particularly irked some parents.

“Those are places we as parents should take our children,” said Candace Stigler, a parent of two at Dvorak. “What does that have to do with education?”

Board President David Vitale said two of the underperforming schools had received additional resources over the years but improvements were not sustained.

“It’s not like this district in the past hasn’t provided additional funding to try to help improve these schools,” Vitale said.

During the vote, Vitale, who chaired AUSL from 2009 to 2011, did not recuse himself. CPS spokesman Joel Hood said there was no conflict of interest because Vitale was no longer on the AUSL board.

Board member Andrea Zopp voted against two of the turnarounds. She pointed out that McNair saw scores moving up until last year and that Dvorak’s new principal had also seen signs of success. She asked if CPS officials were aware that turning Dvorak over to AUSL would mean that a sizable share of North Lawndale schools would now be privately operated.

While AUSL and CPS praised the turnaround schools for seeing higher than district growth in standardized test scores, CTU President Karen Lewis said those successes were “short-lived.” She said three more AUSL schools would mean the transfer of “schools’ authority to a politically connected business organization with ties to City Hall.”

But the Rev. Clarence George, who runs two ministeries in the Gresham community, had the line of the day. He warned schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett that her predecessor, Jean-Claude Brizard, had resigned after a year under Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“If he can turn around Mr. Brizard, he can turn around you,” George said.

Meanwhile, CPS released few details on plans to add air-conditioning units at all schools. Hood said 44 schools still do not have air conditioning and another 162 are partially equipped. District officials could not explain where the cash-strapped district would get the $100 million needed for the capital project.

Source: Chicago Tribune