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Washington High School students stage massive boycott over teacher firings

Students at Chicago’s George Washington High School boycotted the school on the morning of March 12 in protest against the principal’s decision to get rid of more than a dozen of the school’s veteran teachers and many other staff. Above: March 12, 2008. The sign outside Chicago’s George Washington High School looks out over a community of bungalows and rusting factories that once produced steel and steel products. Problems at the school — ranging from street gangs to mice in the building and leaky roofs — are being ignored again by the school’s new principal, teachers charge. Meanwhile, the administration is creating new problems by firing veteran teachers and other staff. Substance photo.

More than 50 percent of the more than 1,500 students at Washington boycotted the school after learning that the principal, who has only been at Washington since January 2008, was purging teachers and other staff. The protest was explicitly against the decision of the principal to get rid of more than a dozen teachers. According to school data, student attendance was 47 percent on March 12, 2008. According to Board of Education records, the school had a total 1,517 students registered that day. The school’s “Daily Absence Report” (which lists the name of every student who is absent) was five pages long. Some of the students who took the day off on March 12 had had zero absences for the school year, while others on the list have had more than 80 days absent for the school year.

The school’s principal, Florence Gonzalez, had warned the students repeatedly on the school intercom during the two days prior to the event that they would be suspended or arrested if they tried to execute a planned sit-in or organized walkout on March 12. As a result, school sources say, the students decided on a simple but effective boycott. Out of the dozen teachers whom Substance confirmed had been fired by the principal (effective the last day of school this school year), most have been teaching effectively at Washington, sources at the school say. The move came as a complete surprise to students and staff. Teachers at the school asked that names not be used in this article because of the climate of fear they say now permeates Washington High School’s staff.

One teacher described one of the teachers who is being fired as a five year veteran who goes out of his way to provide extra instruction and assistance to students. “He’s always around, working with the kids, even when he doesn’t have classes,” the teacher said. Teachers were asking the Chicago Teachers Union whether a new principal who had been at the school for fewer than five months could institute a wholesale purge of the faculty. As of Substance press time, the answer from CTU staff has not been forthcoming. Although CTU president Marilyn Stewart had promised the union’s more than 30,000 members that she would restore seniority rights to all teachers and end the precarious situation of PATs (“Provisional Assigned Teachers”) and TATs (“Temporarily Assigned Teachers”) that had been agreed to by her predecessor, the union apparently had failed to secure those protections. According to sources at the school, the principal announced that any student participating in the walkout would be suspended or arrested. The students support the young and old teachers that were given a letter saying that they would not be invited back to GWHS next fall.? One was accused of organizing the walk out.

Chicago police and Chicago Board of Education security were beefed up on March 12, after the principal told the students they would be arrested if they participated in the planned event. No disruptions or arrests took place, but two weeks later, on March 28, gang fights, a longstanding problem at Washington, again disrupted the school. According to staff and students, Washington High School has members of several rival gang factions present in the school and community. While the principal was focused on firing teachers, there was not sufficient extra security to stop the problems that have begun arising from the gangs now that Spring has arrived. Washington staff are worried that more gang problems will result in future weeks.

The new media age resulted in many discussions in Cyberspace about the situation at Washington. During the two weeks after the student boycott (from March 14 through March 28), one blog (District299.com) posted 75 comments on the Washington High School situation, more than double the number posted regarding the murder of a student at Crane High School on Chicago’s West Side.

Although the principal and some of her supporters claimed, according to school sources, that the boycott was actually organized by teachers, most observers told Substance that the boycott was a “student action.”

In addition to problems with student security caused by the gangs, there is also a problem of school safety caused by what are known as “environmental issues.” Teachers and students say these, too, deserve the principal’s attention.

“Last year at this time the students published a piece about the dismal learning conditions at Washington High School,” one teacher told Substance. “The roof is leaking every time it rains, and mice are rampant throughout the building. They seem to feed off the moisture; every time there is a thaw or a heavy rain the roof subsequently leaks. It was in the “Patriot”, the student newspaper.”

On teacher told Substance that the gang problems at Washington High School, which is adjacent to the Indiana border on the far southeast side, have existed since the 1980s, under several administrations. The blog discussions of the problems at the school also included charges and counter charges about political influence from the powerful 10th Ward Regular Democratic Organization that could not be substantiated at Substance press time. Whatever the ultimate results of the current controversies (and there are at least three separate ones that can be identified, even by an outside observers who makes an effort), the facts are that March 2008 was a stormy month for everyone at Chicago’s Washington High School. A major reason for the tumult was a decision by the school’s new administration (installed in January 2008) to purge a large number of teachers and other staff. According to many people familiar with the school, the purge, which was not called for, was done while the administration was failing to address more pressing needs — including leaking roof, vermin in the building, and street gangs that seem to view the school as their turf. 

This article was originally published in the April 2008 print edition of Substance.



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