Austin Woes Are Capped by Decision to Fire Teachers and a Student Protest
By MERIBAH KNIGHT
After discovering last week that nearly a quarter of their teachers were being dismissed, students at Austin Polytechnical Academy decided to take extreme action. Holding secret planning sessions under the guise of a robotics team meeting, they plotted.
First, they gathered signatures of more than half the student body on a petition demanding that the decision be reversed. Then on Monday, at 9 a.m. sharp, despite threats of suspension, more than 100 of the school‘s 358 students walked out of their classes and into the street. Chanting “Save our teachers,” the students circled the school at 231 North Pine Avenue on the far West Side
The firings, student walkout, and a flurry of union grievances that are in the works follow a year of abrupt fits and starts at Austin Polytech. In October, Chicago Public Schools officials placed the school on academic probation. In February, students learned the interim principal was leaving at year’s end. In March, C.P.S. backed off a hasty plan to merge Austin with another school after a community uproar.
Now, in May, 7 of their 30 teachers are being dismissed, and the interim principal who made the decision, Fabby Williams, gave five of them the school district’s controversial “do not hire” designation, which bans them from future employment by C.P.S.
Repeated calls and e-mails to Mr. Williams over the past eight months were not returned. The Chicago News Cooperative has visited Austin Polytech numerous times this school year, but before the protests Monday, Mr. Williams demanded a reporter leave the school.
Asked about events at Austin, Frank Shuftan, a C.P.S. spokesman, said, “The non-renewal of probationary appointed teachers is done annually and is based on the professional judgment of principals and the needs of individual schools.”
The contretemps at Polytech, while extreme, is an example of larger obstacles within the district. As C.P.S. tries to cope with limited resources by closing or consolidating schools, replacing principals, and dismissing teachers – often despite generally positive observations of their classroom performance – tensions are mounting. They could peak at the end of May, when the district is required to inform teachers whose contracts will not be renewed.
Teachers, students and parents said the walkout at Austin Polytech was more than a reaction to the dismissals. The demonstration, and a sit-in on Thursday morning, also reflected a perception that Mr. Williams and his school administration are unresponsive to the interests of teachers and students.
In interviews with 17 Polytech teachers, nearly two-thirds of the teaching staff, each cited poor communication by the administration with staff members and students, a lack of access to professional development, inconsistent disciplinary measures and a feeling of having no voice in administrative decisions.
“Accessibility, transparency and communicating about what is really happening – I don’t think it was there,” said LaTanya Lambert, a tenured teacher at the school.
Perhaps the biggest issue, students and faculty members say, is the school‘s almost constant flux. “If you throw a transition right on top of a transition on top of a transition, instability becomes the norm,” said Steve McIlrath, Polytech’s tenured math teacher.
“We don’t blame the teachers,” said Cuauhtemoc Mendoza, 16, a junior who co-organized the protest. “We blame the administration. We’re without a voice.”
Teachers said Mr. Williams almost never attended school assemblies, sporting events and Local School Council meetings. Grievances filed against the administration by teachers went unanswered, teachers said.
Students and teachers said they were baffled why Mr. Williams, on his way out, would act so drastically in dismissing the teachers.
In addition, they note that Mr. Williams worked most of the year without a permanent administrative credential from C.P.S. Documents show he did not receive the credential until March 14, only two months before he dismissed the teachers. “So here we have someone who is a temporary administrator making a permanent decision on somebody’s career,” said John Kugler, the school‘s union representative.
Over the past year, the do-not-hire status has been a point of contention between teachers and the district. This is largely attributable to a lack of transparency: teachers labeled unemployable found out about the designation only when they applied for other C.P.S jobs and were rejected. After negotiations between the union and C.P.S., this year’s letters of non-renewal must indicate the person’s ineligibility for re-employment by C.P.S.
“We’re depending on one person’s eyes and ears to determine the permanent fate of someone’s career,” said Lillian Kass, a teacher and union delegate. Ms. Kass’s contract has been renewed.
Evaluation documents reviewed by the Chicago News Cooperative for five of the seven teachers dismissed show that each was observed once by Mr. Williams and again by the assistant principal, Tonya Hammaker. According to past evaluations, at least four of the seven dismissed teachers had received “excellent” ratings the previous year.
Mr. Kugler said Mr. Williams’s decision to fire teachers led the union to file 15 grievances contesting the evaluations.
Nearly all the teachers interviewed independently commented on a lack of professional development. They said there had been few staff meetings.