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Washington HS principal trying to fire CTU delegate who stood up for teachers' rights, against racism

Last week long-time teacher delegate and activist John Whitfield was escorted out of George Washington High School after he was suspended by principal Forence Gonzales. Gonzales is attempting to fire Whitfield, he and the Chicago Teachers Union will argue, because as the CTU delegate at Washington, he filed numerous grievances and constantly fought against what many observers would say were attacks on the faculty and staff by principal Florence Gonzales.

Washington High School CTU delegate John Whitfield (above left) speaking about the situation at Washington during the November 16, 2011 meeting of the Chicago Board of Education. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.“I’ve spoken with many of you, and I know that Mr. Whitfield is viewed as a loyal and beloved colleague,” CTU high school coordinator Joey McDermott wrote in a letter that he distributed to the staff. “Many of you have told me, ‘He is the person I know I can trust when I have a problem.’ Some of you expressed concern and asked, ‘If she can do that to a union delegate, can’t she do it to any of us?’ Others told me that, ‘This is because he stood up to her and filed grievances. This is retaliation.’”

The facts here certainly make it look like that is the case. When Gonzales first became principal three years ago, according to many on the staff, she immediately went after faculty who had signed a letter that wanted the interim principal (not Gonzales) to continue. Many were fired or forced out.

She then targeted the African American student population by eliminating the Options of Knowledge program, and also fired a number of minority teachers, according to teachers. Because Washington High School is located in an area without African American families, changing the Options program effectively reduced the number of students within a couple of years.

These actions have been documented in the grievances Whitfield and the various CTU field reps have filed.

Gonzales is facing a number of lawsuits and other legal actions from teachers, for such alleged actions as racism, harassment and retaliation.

Her actions were deemed so vile to many at the school that just a few months after she became principal in 2008 the students walked out of the building during school hours despite her threats to suspend them.

Many would agree that fear has been one of the primary weapons she has wielded in order to stay in power. On many occasions, not one teacher would speak to the media or go to the Board of Education to complain about her bullying tactics — except for Whitfield.

Whitfield spoke out continuously and filed grievances to protect his colleagues. He spoke to the Board of Education meeting on Wednesday, November 16, 2011, accompanied by Alvaro Rivero, who was fired for allegedly not reporting on a student who had narcotics.

Whitfield read to the Board members a document entitled a letter of no confidence and demand for the resignation or termination of Gonzales. The letter summarized the actions Gonzales took against the staff and students at Washington.

“Gonzales has also engaged in a pattern of deceptive practices, and the trumping up of charges against individual employees in order to justify termination and achieve her goal of having supporters friendly to her administration working at the school. Patronage is now playing a major role in the hiring and firing of individuals at the high school,” the letter stated.

Union insiders say Whitfield has a strong case of political retaliation for being fired, and he plans to fight the process with union lawyers. Whitfield said at one point Gonzales told him that he files a grievance every day.

But according to Gonzales, Whitfield was fired because he was a poor teacher. He went through the E3 process, in which he was supposed to follow a process to improve his teaching according to weak points that the principal noted. Whitfield had completed a 90 day remediation process in which he worked with a consulting teacher, who made suggestions on how to improve. “At the end of this process, despite the feedback that he showed improvement, Gonzales determined that his performance was still unsatisfactory,” McDermott wrote in the letter.

The union filed several grievances against Gonzales alleging she fired Whitfield because he spoke out, alleging that she was abusive and discriminated against the staff, and harassed many staff members. Whitfield also filed grievances that said Gonzales set him up to fail by taking him out of an ELL (English Language Learner) position, giving him four different course preps and assigning him to five different classrooms for several years in a row, Whitfield said.

The teachers union has also filed an Unfair Labor Practice complaint with the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board on behalf of Whitfield, McDermott said.

“The Union took these actions because the attack on Mr. Whitfield is an attack on every CTU member’s rights,” the union letter further states. “The Union is very sensitive to an attack on any member, but is especially sensitive when a delegate is attacked for their union activity. Mr. Whitfield, as a delegate, volunteered to serve his school and his union to protect their rights and fight for a better contract. Mr. Whitfield was a delegate that everyone knew would stand up to the principal when she did wrong. Mr. Whitfield was a delegate everyone knew they could trust and would keep any concerns confidential. The Union cannot tolerate a person being targeted when they volunteer their efforts in service to their brothers and sisters.”

Whitfield’s roots of defiance of abusive authority go back to the days when he served in the Peace Corps in Latin America. While in Costa Rica, he penned a letter that was critical of Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza.

“I wrote of youth being forced to put out bonfires with their hands, and other teens being hung from their ankles and given electric shocks,” he wrote in an email to Substance. “This was while visiting my dear spouse’s home in Carazo, Nicaragua when censorship of the press was briefly lifted. They said my life was in danger, as Somoza (who was supported by the U.S. until he was murdered) had henchmen in Costa Rica also.”

Whitfield was sent back to the United States, where he started teaching English as a Second Language and Spanish. He has worked 30 years as a teacher, and this was his eighth year at Washington High School.

His defiance continues even after he was ordered to vacate Washington High School last week. He will continue to serve as his school’s delegate for the next 30 days. “My gut feeling is that my principal wanted me out of the building for the upcoming GWHS CTU elections,” Whitfield told Substance. “She also illegally interfered with the delegate elections last time, though I still was able to win against my associate delegate.”



Comments:

November 21, 2011 at 10:31 AM

By: Jean Schwab

Truth

Ms. Gonzalez was angry because John spoke the truth and people listened. She knew that she had to get rid of him or other people may start speaking the truth without fear.

Funny thing about the truth, whether people recognize it or not, deep down they they know the truth.

November 22, 2011 at 9:52 AM

By: Jessica Matushek

Husband was fired by Gonzales

When Ms. Gonzales became principal she fired my husband, along with many other high performing beloved teachers. She was able to do this because of her political connections. As if losing their jobs weren't enough, she targeted several outspoken teachers, contacting the principles at schools they applied at to prevent them from finding work. The teachers she let go were all from the neighborhood and had good rapport with students. She wanted them out so she could work her agenda. Unfortunately it's the students who suffer the most in this situation. My husband is now teaching in the suburbs and is appreciated by his new administration. Chicago politics and people like Gonzales is what makes CPS worse, they are losing good teachers.

November 22, 2011 at 12:33 PM

By: Jacqueline Pacheco

So Sad!

The school was suppose to change for better not for worse!

November 25, 2011 at 1:55 PM

By: Marquise Davis

Ms. Gonzales ruined lots of students futures

I was a student at George Washington High-School, and my first two weeks at the school MS. Gonzales and other staff members disliked me. I was a new student at the school not knowing anyone but my brother, and they was suspending me for bulling. My two years there was the worst school experience I ever had from a school. Everyday somebody fighting — and it's not gang fight's its racial fight between black and latino students. Every time something happens to a Latino student, they assumed I had something to do with it. I'm not a racist before I entered Washington High School. I was a student at Richards Career Academy High School, and I had more Latino friends than black friends. My grades where better and I only got suspended once, and it was'nt for fighting. So how come I come to another school and all that changes? My grades drop. I'm getting suspended every time I come back to school, and they told me I was kicked out of Chicago Public School because I signed a paper saying I didn't want to attend high school anymore. I dont recall me ever signing a paper stating those words. So I had to settle for a GED. I'm happy that someone spoke up on what's going on.

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