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Jail Teacher Aims High on the Westside... Donielle Lawson wants to be alderman of Chicago's 24th Ward

Welcome to Chicago's 24th ward — where the ghost of former Chicago Board of Education President Michael Scott lurks among mushrooms of foreclosured homes, dreams of an Olympic pool and state of the art velodrome turned to dust and the troops continue to come home from 26th and California, looking for jobs, hope and a new life.

Amongst this field of dreams on Chicago's West Side, candidates are lining up to challenge yet another battered incumbent. Already 12 candidates have declared their intentions to take a shot at the seat currently held by Alderman Sharon Dixon.

After teaching some of Chicago's most challenging students for years, Donielle Lawson (above) has decided to run for alderman of Chicago's west side 24th Ward. Substance photo by Jim Vail.One of them is a special education teacher, a union delegate at the Cook County Jail School, a single mom of six and an expert in westside politics.

"We're the number one ward for most new homes built," says Donielle Lawson, who has taught 18 years in the Chicago Public Schools. "And now we're the leader in foreclosed homes."

Her ward is also a leader in Mayor Daley's Renaissance 2010 plan to privatize education — there are ten charter and turnaround schools. Lawson told Substancenews that one of her goals if elected is to fight for public education.

The charters in the 24th ward include Frazier Prep and Frazier International, North Lawndale College Prep, Legacy, LEARN, KIPP, and Catalyst, as well as turnaround schools Bethune and Johnson, in which the entire staff was fired and replaced by mostly new, and mostly white teachers in an area predominantly black. Lathrop Elementary School is also being phased out.

Donielle Lawson (above), a teacher, is running for alderman of the 24th Ward.George W. Collins High School, which was built in Douglas Park after huge Civil Rights era protests from the community, has been turned over to a charter school (North Lawndale College Prep) and the "Academy for Urban School Leadership" (AUSL), which has taken over the "turnaround" business in Chicago and is positioning itself to do the same nationally. When Collins High School was closed in the early years of "Renaissance 2010" and turned over to the charter school, the school's founding principal, Grady C. Jordan, went to the school and took his photograph off the wall by the main office, declaring that he did not want to be part of an activity that disgraced the memory of the people who fought to create the "school in the park."

Another national celebrity, KIPP, moved its charter school from Sumner Elementary public school where they took many of the students and moved to Penn, which is now underenrolled due to the placement of the charter school inside the building. Once KIPP was inside Penn, windows that hadn't been washed in a decade and rooms that had needed paint for years suddenly were transformed by a school system that claimed it had no money.

Lawson notes the politics behind many of the charter schools which reflect a volatile mix of gentrification and "failing schools" in the Lawndale community.

"We're being raided by all these charters," she said. "One of the charter schools Frazier Prep was brought to the community and according to their website is chaired by Robert Steele, the Cook County Commissioner and the son of the Cook County Board President Bobbie Steele. I have a problem with him being Cook County Commissioner and starting up charter schools."

The players on this side of town nestled roughly between Cicero to the west, Sacramento Blvd. to the east, Jackson Blvd. on the north and Cermak Road to the south - are the westside deal makers who quietly run the show behind closed doors.

The first player is Wayne Gordon, a former Farragut High School gym coach and white minister, known as "coach," who moved into the ward in 1975 after graduating from Weaton College. Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley has given him most of the abondoned buildings around the community early in the 1990's to fix up into "affordable" housing. He was also given health centers that have expanded, including one run inside Farragut High School, that serves 120,000 people every year, according to his website. Most of his businesses run along Ogden Ave.

Illinois state representative Art Turner's office is next door to Gordon's Lawndale Community Church, which Gordon founded and today boasts 1,000 parishioners, his website states.

Gordon is also the founding president of the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation, an arm of Lawndale Community Church that facilitates economic development, education and housing. According to the website, "LCDC has seven different housing ministries and under Wayne's leadership, over 400 units of abandoned housing have been rehabbed. LCDC places special emphasis on home ownership for residents of the community."

"In walking the ward since early spring, many of the constituents have stated to me that he really runs the ward," Lawson said. "He might be the machine."

People have also asked Lawson if it was okay with "coach" that she is running for alderman, Lawson said, while there are others who have jobs in his businesses that are "secretely" supporting Lawson.

Then there's political activist Richard Barnett, who Lawson terms as the other alderman of the ward, who slates candidates and currently backs candidate Chauncey Stroud, who once was chief of staff for former 24th Ward Alderman Jesse Miller. Barnett has had a strong influence on who becomes alderman in the 24th ward for the past several decades, sources say. According to The Reader, he supported Dixon at the end of her race.

"(Barnett) knows how to knock people off the ballot," Lawson said.

The 24th ward is also home to former alderman Michael Chandler, sponsor of the infamous Chandler Resolution, which called for a one-year moratorium on school closings until research be conducted to prove moving children to different schools supports their academic growth. After 40 aldermen signed on to co-sponsor the resolution in 2006 which directly challenged the mayor's privatization plan, Chandler surprised everyone by not showing up to introduce his own resolution, which community groups including the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU Local 73 worked hard to champion. He then lost his seat the next year in 2007 to unknown Sharon Dixon by 192 votes in a runoff election.

Many have speculated that Michael Scott, who served as the last president of the Board of Education before he took an early morning stroll along the Chicago River and shot himself, may have been forced to end his life because he was overleveraged on hitting gold should the Olympics be awarded to Chicago. Scott had to recuse himself after the Chicago Tribune questioned why a real estate developer where part of the Olympics were slated to be housed was also on Mayor Daley's Olympic Committee. Under Scott's leadership, the Chicago Board of Education passed a resolution in early 2009 giving the Olympic committee complete control over any CPS schools in the Olympic area. Within two months after the International Olympic Committee denied the Chicago bid in the first round, Scott allegedly committed suicide putting one bullet into his head on a dark night alongside the Chicago River behind the Merchandise Mart.

Scott and CPS were ready for the Olympics, but Chicago lost out to Rio de Janiero to host the 2016 Olympics, and Mayor Richard Daley, who just announced he will not seek re-election, is history.

"There were rumors Michael Scott's son was going to run for (alderman)," Lawson said, "but then he (personally) told me he's not going to run."

Lawson has worked as a special education teacher at York Alternative School inside the Cook County Jail for three years. She said she wrote and implemented the first inclusion program in 1999, working with probation officers, judges, and lawyers. She was the first Special Education Inclusion teacher at the "Audy Home", or the Cook County Juvenile Temporary Detention Center, she said. She was also the director of specialized services in a suburban school district.

Her roots in the 24th Ward date back to over 60 years ago, when her grandparents purchased a two-flat in the community. She grew up in Austin, Englewood and South Shore, but after she graduated nearly 20 years ago, she returned to the 24th ward. She is a high school graduate of Whitney Young Magnet High School in 1986 and attended Southern University- Baton Rouge (1991) earning a B.S. in Vocational Rehabilitative Counseling/Psychology. She continued her education at Rosary College- River Forest (1995) earning a M.S. in Special Education, and at Lewis University in education administration.

She is also a single mother of six children: Glenn Jr. (21), Taylor (17), Logan (14), Lyric (12), Elijah (9), and Ridge (7).

"I always said I wanted three boys and three girls," Lawson said.

A testament to Lawson can be found in her children. The oldest is the president of the political action committee of the NAACP chapter at Morehouse College and he is also currently interning at the Liberian consulate. Her oldest daughter Taylor wears many hats as well; besides participating in the IB program, she is president of the student council at her high school and is preparing to compete in Ms. Teen USA.

So why has an attractive frizzy-haired African American single mother and seasoned educator decided to jump into a tank with sharks circling at every corner?

"Why did I decide to run," Lawson said. "A few years ago, while I served as an election judge, I witnessed the current alderman disrespecting the process and judges. I escorted her out of the polling area and after witnessing me for 10 hours, Mr. Berry told me that I will be the next alderman. When I came to vote in February for the gubernatorial primaries, he asked me if I was ready. I had to tell him yes."

She notes that she hasn't taken one day off since she officially declared her candidacy. She works 8-10 hour days, 15-16 hours on the weekends on this campaign.

Approximately 57 percent of the residents in this ward are ex-offenders, according to the University of Illinois. That means one of the aldermanic candidates has to be an ex-gang banger, and that would be Mark Carter. Carter is a spokesman for V.O.T.E., an inner-city political action group founded by ex-cons who are fed up with the Democratic Party. (V.O.T.E. stands for Voice of the Ex-Offender.)

Carter has partnered with Alan Keyes, the conservative black politician whose claim to fame was running against Barak Obama for the US senate in 2004 after Obama's Republican opponent had to drop out when the media reported him visiting sex clubs.

"Barack Obama is so much entrenched in the status quo in the city of Chicago that he does not support the issues of the black community, especially our generation," Carter, who did time in the 1990s, told the Chicago Reader in 2004. "Joblessness, homelessness, police brutality. We don't have to vote the same way our grandmothers did. When you look at the numbers supporting the Democrats, it's the civil rights generation. The younger generation, the hip-hop generation, we're more open."

And then there is the ex-principal candidate, Julius Anderson, a former Hughes principal and Collins High School history teacher, who claims on his literature that he saved Collins High School. According to AUSL school rosters, his son Mahiri Anderson was an intern for the highly competitive CPS program. Julius Anderson runs the non-profit entity called Men for a Better Lawndale, which helps boys build computers. It should also be noted that according to his literature in the past election and this election cycle, his non-profit office doubles as a political office.

"Can one use grant money for a political campaign," said Lawson, adding that his son Mahiri also served on Collins High School TAC that helped to choose a charter school that had helped give Mahiri a free Master's degree. "Mr. Julius Anderson's idea of saving Collins was to privatize it."

One issue Lawson raised with Anderson is his $100,000 CPS principal pension.

"When I asked him in the spring if he was going to donate part of his pension like some other retired candidates in other wards vowed to do, he just walked away. I believe in transparency and I share what I make as a professional with my constituents. Historically, 24th ward aldermen didn't make a middle-income salary. This perhaps might be the reason why we are not respected when we are elected to City Hall."

While the mayor has not officially backed any candidates in this race, Alderman Pat Dowell, who sponsored a resolution this past year that called for a moratorium on school closings, is supposedly backing Wallace E. "Micky" Johnson, a former Chicago Bulls player in the 1970s. He also was the basketball coach at Malcolm X City College.

However, Johnson denied it in an email and said incumbents usually endorse fellow incumbents. Dowell's office has not responded to questions about whether she is supporting anyone in this race.

Dowell, who has an extensive background in urban planning and community development according to the City of Chicago website, was one of several pro-labor candidates SEIU backed in the 2007 aldermanic elections after the Union decided to not endorse anyone in the mayoral election.

While Dowell showed initial concern about the school closings in her ward that eventually resulted in taking Mollison off the 2010 hit list in her ward, and co-sponsored a resolution for a moratorium on school closings, she later tacitly supported the AUSL turnaround at Phillips High School, even though she held community meetings in which the public spoke out against firing everyone in the building, from teachers and teacher aids, to cafeteria workers and security guards. The majority of the Phillips staff were eliminated in June 2010, and Phillips is now being run by AUSL.

16th Ward Alderman Jo Ann Thompson, who SEIU also supported financially in the 2007 election, backed the proposed AUSL takeover of Holmes Elementary School in Englewood in 2008 - 2009, saying the teachers were no good at a community meeting at the school. Thompson has been a strong Renaissance 2010 privatization supporter.

After a visit by former school board president Rufus Williams, who grew up in Lawndale, the school was removed from the closing list. Interestingly enough, Alderman Thompson has her face plastered on a billboard across the street from the school taking credit for the extensive remodeling inside the building which includes handicapped accessible bathrooms and a sparkling new gym, a sure sign that the repairs were done because AUSL was supposed to run the school until the community and teachers fought back against the private operator.

Then there is Melissa Williams, a real estate attorney, who is being backed by State Senator Ricky Hendon who ran recently unsuccessfully for liutenant governor, sources say.

Lawson said she also worked at Dodge Elementary, one of the first turnaround schools in the city where President Obama publically announced former Chicago Schools Chief Arne Duncan as the new secretary of education.

Jarvis Sanford was the third principal who in the first weeks of his appointment, Lawson said.

That summer, she overheard him in a conversation in the office one day telling the clerk to check out a student's test scores, discipline and attendance records before allowing that student to enroll at the school.

Whereas President Obama and Duncan held their press conference at Dodge to claim the turnaround at Dodge was a successful model that is now being implemented nationwide, the reality was the school was screening their applicants, something no public school can do.

"I actually saw the faxed information come in and it was given to Dr. Sanford for review," Lawson said.

Sanford is now the head of all AUSL elementary schools, one source told Substancenews.

Lawson also noted that all three Dodge principals were graduates of the New Leaders for New Schools program, the background of choice for new principals the Board of Ed is grooming to run the schools. Lawson said she was once a New Leaders finalist to enter the program. After needing 36 hours to fill out an application, she became a finalist for the national program in 2005. The first interview was two hours long; Lawson then made it to the final round when she had an 8 and a half hour long interview. She said the process took over three months.

"In hindsight I see why I didn't get it," she said. "I am probably too radical and they picked up on it."

Chandler lost his seat to Ald. Dixon in 2007 despite the fact that Mayor Daley showered him with $40,000 to increase his war chest to $300,000, sources say.

Dixon, who became the first female alderman elected in the 24th ward, was an unknown case worker for two years, as well as a former flight attendant and dietician aide who moved into the community for two years and helped out at a community garden and became a block club president. Her companion Frank Washington, who later became her chief of staff, has worked for Operation Push for several decades, so he was able to organize behind the scenes, Lawson said.

"She claims she's been cleaning up the ward, that she got street lights," Lawson says. "I'm not running on cleaning up the ward. That's Streets and Sanitation's business. I'm running on 1) Accessibility and transparency, 2) Support a publically funded education, 3) A real second chance for ex-offenders and 4) Continue to support current businesses and non-profits in the community."

Lawson said her biggest concern during the campaign is money. She is hoping her grass roots support will help mobilize an army of supporters, similar to how CORE beat the machine of Chicago Teacher Union politics last June.

Lawson has spent six months documenting her accounts with constituents and allowing her nearly 3,000 friends on facebook to follow her on the campaign trail.

"Recently I was threatened for posting an interview," she said. "The person who is a friend of the opponent commented for me to stop it. (But) there is no need to stop what you are destined to do."

One thing is for certain, Lawson said, there will be a new alderman in the 24th ward come next February. While campaigning, Lawson said her team has canvassed the Lawndale neighborhoods and everyone has been saying they will not vote for Dixon.

"She's very disrespectful to her constituents," Lawson said. "She screams if she disagrees with you."

Lawson said her next fundraising event will be at Douglas Park Cultural Center October 16, 2010 where she hopes to raise $10,000 for her campaign. You can join her on facebook Donielle Lawson, follow her on Twitter at AldermanDoni, or check out her website LawsonforLawndale.com

"It is cumbersome working full-time, raising children and campaigning," she said. "However, this has been one of the greatest rides of my life." 



Comments:

September 22, 2010 at 10:37 PM

By: Mike

Doni Lawson

Doni-

Great Article. You definitely have my vote. I am completely sickened by Sharon Dixon and these rubberstamp alderman.

Bye Bye Daley!

September 22, 2010 at 10:40 PM

By: Valerie F. Leonard

Another Alternative

This is a very well written story. However, it does not mention all of the candidates running in the 24th Ward.

My name is Valerie F. Leonard. I was born and raised in North Lawndale, and have been actively engaged in the community, as a resident, the founder of the Lawndale Alliance, and as a community development consultant. I have taken leadership on the issue of the City using $30 million in TIF funds to renovate Collins High School before closing it and re-opening it as a charter, only to make plans to demolish the gym for an Olympic Velodrome. I am the only candidate who hosts town hall meetings taking a comprehensive look at the facilities, performance and finances of North Lawndale Schools. I have written reports on the need for TIF reform. I am the only candidate who raised serious concerns regarding the negative impact of the new admissions policies for magnet and selective enrollment schools upon North Lawndale children. No other candidate has done an in-depth analysis of the impact of TIFs in North Lawndale. I have provided feedback to the Chicago Education Facilities Task Force as they explore ways to improve decision making around Chicago School facilities. To find out more, e-mail me at valeriefleonard@msn.com.

November 28, 2010 at 5:36 AM

By: Darrah Micah

24th Ward Alderman Contest

Ms. Lawson makes nearly $100,000 per year as a teacher at the jail school.

She is also an admitted unwed mother of six. With the problem of single motherhood being at an all time high, it is hard to support someone with the reigns of power who appears to have such little self control in their personal life. One unwed child is a mistake, all those that follow reflect a character flaw. This is not a role model for the young ladies of our community.

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