'You're underutilized' — How CPS is destroying Irving Park Middle School to please local wealthy homeowners

Interview with Raymond Wohl. “Closing School” March 26, 2008

Substance has been conducting a series of interviews with disillusioned parents, teachers and students in charter schools that are replacing public schools. Substance spoke with Raymond Wohl, a fine arts teacher at Irving Park Middle School, which will be closed due to “underutilization.” Wohl tells how the teachers at his public school saved their jobs. Irving Park will be replaced by the Disney Magnet School II. “Disney II” will take in Pre-K, 1st and 2nd graders. Above: February 15, 2008. Hearings on school closings, reconstitutions, and reorganizations 2008. Students, parents, teachers and administrators from Irving Park Middle School refuted every claim made by the Duncan administration about their school. The carefully prepared presentation in defense of the school was attended by more than 100 supporters of continuing the school. According to CPS “data”, Irving Park Middle was not “underutilized.” Classroom space was being used for important programs that the Duncan administration chose to ignore. The objective of the administration was to provide an elite magnet school to the newly arrived and wealthier residents of the “Old Irving Park” community on Chicago’s northwest side. Despite the fact that Chicago Schools Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan proclaimed that his program of “cloning” supposedly successful schools would provide “new school choice” to what Duncan calls “underserved communities,” the new “Disney Magnet II” school, which will be located in the building that presently houses Irving Park Middle, will primarily serve some of the most wealthy families on Chicago’s northwest side. It is impossible, even after the mortgage crisis began, to buy a single family home adjacent to Irving Park Middle School for less than a half million dollars. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.

Substance: Can you tell us a little about yourself and the school you work at?

Ray Wohl: I am the fine arts teacher at Irving Park Middle School. I have been teaching for 14 years at the school. I teach visual arts, music and drama. Our school has a very friendly environment. We loop with the kids so we are with them for two years. Our students are over 75 percent free or reduced lunch. Over the course of the school year about 70 percent of our kids stay after school. We have about 10 after school activities such as student council, drama club, football, basketball, volleyball, track & field, softball, yearbook, a newspaper club, a teen outreach program that supports the kids, an art club that does murals and three literacy programs. Our test scores are very good - in reading 71 percent of the kids are reading at or above the state standards and in math it’s 80 percent. Above: March 20, 2008. Raymond Wohl, Irving Park Middle School teacher and union delegate, standing in front of the school. Irving Park Middle is located at 3815 N. Kedvale. Once the Duncan administration declared Irving Park to be “underutilized,” the Duncan administration was able to close the school and turn it over to a new magnet school for the “Old Irving Park” community. The students and staff of Irving Park Middle School will be moving to Thurgood Marshall Middle School (presently located in the old Alvernia High School building at 3900 N. Lawndale, a mile to the east) after the end of this school year. The Irving Park Middle School building will be occupied by the new “Disney II” magnet school. “Disney II” is one of several “clones” of existing schools that the Duncan administration has promoted during the past two years. Screening for the clones is conducted outside the Chicago Board of Education by the Chicago Education Fund, a private entity. Duncan also says that the clones are supposed to serve “underserved communities.” There are million dollar MaMansions within a block of Irving Park Middle School, and the Old Irving Park community is one of the most affluent in Chicago. Substance photo by Dan Bartel.

Substance: Was it a shock when the Board of Education announced they would be closing your school? Ray Wohl: No, it was not a total shock. A year ago the principal thought about taking a job downtown. The reason they said we’d be closed is “underutilization.” We asked the union for months, “Who is underutilized?” Why doesn’t the union say something? “What does it mean to be underutilized?” The Board said we had capacity for 660 kids in the building. The parents would be up in arms if they knew what this meant.

Substance: What do you mean?

Ray Wohl: That would mean every room in the building that houses 7th and 8th graders should have over 30 students in it. We currently have 348 students — about 30, 28 or 25 kids in a classroom. They say the facility can handle more. They used this as a way around someone’s design, but it was not necessarily the best for the students. We have 20 classrooms. That means our computer lab, library, fine arts, music and ELL (and Special Ed rooms) would have to be regular classrooms filled with over 30 students. This is not the 1920s when schools were built like this. Substance: What did the Chicago Teachers Union do to help you?

Ray Wohl: Mary McGuire, the secretary of the Chicago Teachers Union, said she would get back to us and never did. Sharon Orlowek, our field rep, offered us very little support as our school was about to close. She said to organize the parents and contact the alderman. But the alderman wasn’t going to support us because our students do not live in the neighborhood. Then she said she would call the A.I.O. (Area Instructional Officer) to set up a meeting with the faculty, but I remember a few years ago an A.I.O. had promised to help the teachers who were supposed to transfer to the newly built Haugan Middle School but instead sold them down the river. They all lost their jobs to a new charter school. Go look for a job was basically the union’s attitude.

Substance: But you guys did in fact organize yourselves to save your jobs?

Ray Wohl: We tried to figure out what we could do. We started to accept the move and then one of the teachers said let’s relocate the whole school and keep our jobs. The union didn’t help a bit with strategizing. You’re on your own, they said. They didn’t help us with a plan of action. But we changed our status from a “phase out” to a “relocation.” And we saved our jobs.

Substance: How did you do this?

Ray Wohl: The Board’s looking to fill every school 100 percent. But what is a “fully utilized” school? Jim Dispensa from the Board is in charge of space utilization. He has to tell you what the formula is — how do you determine it? It’s an uphill battle to fight a number they have arbitrarily fixed on a school. The Board doesn’t care if this affects teachers. How does it affect the students, the community and the district? Forget about teachers, traditions and programs. So we took that and had students and teachers address the Board on their terms and we won.

Substance: How did this happen?

Ray Wohl: As it stood, we were supposed to be phased out, meaning the 8th graders would graduate, so we’d have only one class of students the next year. Future students would attend Thurgood Marshall Middle School. So after one more year, Irving Park would be finished and the teachers would all lose their jobs. So we argued that if you phase out the school, you’d leave the students behind in a building that is not really their school. We used the NCLB argument, Leave No Child Behind. We said you need to protect the integrity of a school. Why should you have two schools in one school? (Disney II Magnet School students will replace the Irving Park Middle School students.) Next year’s 8th Grade class would not have a full-time gym teacher or arts program. They would not have a real sports program since there would only be one grade level. The parents would have elementary kids at three different schools. The students spoke very passionately and eloquently. It would be good for the district to retain the teachers and thus not duplicate what they’re doing. Substance: So all the teachers at Irving Park Middle School will move with the students to Thurgood Marshall Middle School. Will the transition be difficult?

Ray Wohl: Thurgood Marshall is a great school with high scores and many similar programs. Their test scores match ours and they have an excellent facility. Thurgood Marshall was a high school so they have a lot of space for both of us. They closed in the early 1980s after being one of the first North-side Catholic schools to integrate. We will introduce our students to this school and take some field trips to get to know the school. We look forward to working with the teachers there. We will have a transition team to get some teachers involved in the merging process.

Substance: What is the CTU doing to address the school closing issue?

Ray Wohl: They sent a questionnaire to the 19 schools that were closed. They asked questions, such as: Has your school experienced principal or teacher turn-over? Is your school a receiving or feeder school? Do you have an LSC? If your school has been slated for relocation, what are the staff members’ options? What they didn’t ask in the survey was what do the parents want and what can the CTU do? I said they can provide packets for union teachers to engage in a struggle to save their jobs, provide sample letters to parents for the public hearings, organize community resistance, provide additional resources on web pages, open the house of delegates meeting to strategize on how to stop public school closings and use the CTU newspaper to combat apathy and mobilize the teachers.

Substance: Have they done any of this?

Ray Wohl: No!

Substance: So what is your advice as the Board plans to close a lot more schools?

Ray Wohl: We saw it was inevitable that our building would be used as a new school. (The school is surrounded by high-priced homes — thus a new magnet school.) We can’t fight that, what then are our options? The Board does what it wants to do. We’re in the fourth year of the Ren 2010 plan. The Board has been telling us for four years that schools will be closed due to underperformance or underutilization. The Board never came and talked to us about their plans. They said at the hearings they will continue our conversations with (our) schools, but they never talked to us before the decision to close the school was made. You need to talk to other schools and then take action yourself. 

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


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