New York Times story exposes tip of CPS iceberg, as teachers are being purged across Chicago... Austin Woes Are Capped by Decision to Fire Teachers and a Student Protest

An article appearing in today's Chicago edition of The New York Times — Austin Woes Are Capped by Decision to Fire Teachers and a Student Protest, By MERIBAH KNIGHT, on line on May 19, 2011, outlines one of the many attacks on teachers taking place right now in Chicago. Because The New York Times was following the stories of Austin Polytech closely throughout the school year, when students decided to walk out on Monday a reporter was there to cover the story. But the story is more important than just one "interim" principal at one school. Within the next few weeks, the Chicago Board of Education will once again be purging experienced teachers — most with excellent and higher ratings — based on the word of "principals" with even less qualifications than Austin's current principal.

Austin High School has been the "campus" for small schools since Arne Duncan destroyed the old Austin High School itself beginning in 2004. Even though all of the small schools inside the building have proved challenged by the realities of the far west side community, there was little protest until this year, when Austin Polytechnic teachers and students challenged the most recent of the school's revolving principals. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Here is the New York Times story. Please help Substance report these events as they unfold in other schools in Chicago.

The New York Times — Austin Woes Are Capped by Decision to Fire Teachers and a Student Protest, By MERIBAH KNIGHT, on line on May 19, 2011,

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. “The climate of the school has changed,” said Allison Bates, a third-year teacher of environmental science. “We don’t sit down as a staff on a regular basis like we used to.” Ms. Bates’s contract is not being renewed, and she is being given a do-not-hire designation. Last year Ms. Bates received an “excellent” rating on her evaluation. This year, she received “unsatisfactory.” On Wednesday, citing a pending investigation, Mr. Williams had Ms. Bates removed from the school. She said C.P.S. was charging her with organizing the walkout, which she denies. At Monday’s protest, students marched around the school, their chants growing louder as they circled the building. Above them, students who had stayed in their classrooms hung their heads out of windows, joining in the shouts. “We’re doing this for the teachers and for us, because they’re our teachers,” said Mr. Mendoza. “That’s what we do when someone tries to break up our family.” The day before, Mr. Mendoza had posted a quote from the union organizer Cesar Chavez on the “Save Austin’s Teachers” Facebook page, which had 53 members Thursday. As the students came back around to the front of the building, Mr. Williams came outside. “Listen up, listen up, students,” Mr. Williams said through a megaphone. He said that if students went into the school’s large auditorium and then to their classes in an orderly fashion, they would not be suspended. “If we go into the auditorium are you going to listen to us and have a conversation?” shouted Cheyenne Sims, 18. “No, I am not doing that,” Mr. Williams said. Eventually, Mr. Williams spoke with three students and agreed to meet with them on Monday. But such a meeting would come three days after Friday’s C.P.S. deadline to inform teachers whose contracts will not be renewed. Ms. Sims, Mr. Mendoza and several other students were suspended Thursday for five days, according to an administration e-mail to teachers.


May 21, 2011 at 3:37 AM

By: John Kugler

Mercenary Administrators

so in march 2009 this guy gets a new job in NC but ends up in Chgo at Austin Polytech Sept 2010 and then by February 15, 2011 gets a job in Bolingbrook. The teachers he fired have more consistency and commitment to the students of Austin than him. Something is definitely wrong with this picture. I smell a rat and the initials are CO!


Board approves personnel appointments, transfers


Fabby T. Williams was named principal of the Business and Finance School at Garinger. Williams has been the area administrator for student services for the East Learning Community since 2007. He was previously an assistant principal at East Mecklenburg High. Williams started his career with CMS in 1990 as an exceptional children teacher at East Mecklenburg and West Charlotte high schools and Sharon Elementary School.


Austin Polytech was first choice for new principal


Contributing Reporter

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Austin was the first one I talked to, and I decided it was a good fit for me," said Williams, who began his career as an educator in North Carolina's Charlotte-Mecklenburg School District.

"I felt that I was very successful in my previous school [and] I thought that coming to Chicago I could bring some of the skills in Charlotte to an urban city such as Chicago," said Williams, whose father hails from Liberia, West Africa.

To boost attendance, Williams plans to be the "face" of the school and do year-round recruitment in the Austin Polytech's feeder schools. In the past, freshmen enrollment hovered between 80 and 90. Williams would like it to top at 100. This school year, 66 freshmen enrolled.

"I want to get into the community, meet the parents, meet the students, meet the community leaders and explain to them the direction we would like to see this school headed," he said.


Valley View Picks New BHS Principal, Other District-Level Staff

February 15, 2011

School board approves hires to fill out Supt. James Mitchem's senior staff.

The board also approved the hiring of Fabby Williams, who will replace Mitchem as Bolingbrook High School principal, and Keith Wood, who will serve as the new principal at Brooks Middle School in place of the retiring Ron Krause.


May 21, 2011 at 8:53 AM

By: Rod Estvan

Austin Polytechnic set up to fail for disabled students

Meribah Knight’s article is really only one of a series of articles on Austin Polytechnical Academy they are all available on the Chicago News Cooperative website. There was much cheer leading about the prospects for this vocational high school program and I have been very critical of the school based on the outcome data I have seen for it. At one point I recall Mike Klonsky getting relatively agitated with my posting on another blog related to this school.

When I look at the data for disabled students at the school they really are no better than they were for these students at the old Austin High School. In 2010 every disabled student in this school tested in every area below standards, most at the warning level.

To see this data go to

This is exactly the same as the results for the old Austin HS. This does not surprise me and it is not the teachers’ fault. In order to “turn around” these students massive resources were needed. Good teaching will not fix the problems these students have; it also requires very high levels of direct services in multiple educational environments.

Students with learning disabilities and cognitive disabilities attending this school needed unique services provided to them, especially reading development. In order to do this very significant time would need to be devoted to each of these children and that would cost money if these services were written into IEPs and the CPS was held libel for these services, so they were not.

By the way I have seen several IEPs written at this school and they were written for a level of services that in no way would allow the students to succeed in a complex technical field. In fact I believe that almost all of these students should have been put on educational plans from day one to keep them at the school until at least age 21 in order to master the curriculum. But that would cost real money wouldn’t it?

Rod Estvan

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