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Bullying principal ruining one of Chicago's top elementary schools

In a leafy, suburban looking northwest corner of the city stands Norwood Park Elementary School. The school mirrors its surroundings — neatly manicured lawns and well swept porches of middle class dwellings where urban professionals reside. The neighborhood school is one of the top performing schools in the city.

According to some residents, about 20 years ago the school was shunned by the community and was in disrepair. But like many schools in gentrified areas of the city, families in the community began to send their children to their neighborhood public school and use the power of the Local School Council to improve things.

As a result, many of these schools changed for the better as more money, parental and community involvement turned around the culture of these schools.

But an abrupt change came to Norwood Park that has hit many Chicago public schools across the city recently — a new administration, and an abrupt change that has shocked the school culture. In the case of Norwood Park, the change was the result of a new principal who a divided local school council chose to put in place.

Some would say the changes implemented immediately were quite harsh.

“She has been emotionally abusive,” said teacher assistant Toni Scavo, who was fired abruptly after working for 17 years at the school. “Teachers have been crying, and she refuses to take phone calls from parents and LSC members.”

The new principal is Rene Blahuta, who served as the assistant principal to the infamous Erin Roach at Prescott Elementary School. Roach’s problems stemmed from immediately battling veteran teachers and dismantling special education and other programs at the school that infuriated the community.

Roach’s controversial ways, that eventually succeeded in eliminating almost the entire tenured staff, resulted in massive protests that put Prescott on the list to be closed. He was voted out by the LSC at his previous school Ravenswood for similar actions.

It appears Blahuta is following in his footsteps.

Scavo believes she was fired because she was on the LSC and she stood up to the new administrator that many of the teachers were afraid to confront.

“One day she comes up and says these kids are too loud to an assistant teacher, can’t you get them under control, right in front of the kids,” Scavo said. “I went into her office and I told her that you do not talk this way.”

Scavo said Blahuta, who is also a practicing attorney with an office in Lombard, was very rude and condescending to staff members at the school.

“People are afraid of her,” Scavo said. “She asked me to rat on one of my co-workers. I told her I’m not comfortable talking about one of my co-workers with you.”

Scavo filed a grievance with the union to get her job back. In fact, there are many similar cases across the system where teachers are being fired by the new principals who are trained in the corporate style of firing workers.

Scavo knows a lot about Norwood Park. She has lived in the community for 25 years and worked at the school for 17 years. Why then would this school choose such a controversial figure?

According to Scavo, it goes back to when the past principal Bill Meuer came to the school 20 years ago and helped turn it into the successful neighborhood school it is today. The parents helped organize massive fundraising for the school that raised “hundreds of thousands of dollars” and with that, questions about the money began to be raised.

It resulted in a crescendo. Those parents who did not trust how the school was spending the funds then went against the wishes of many of the parents and staff, and voted to hire Blahuta, Scavo said.

“There were two factions of parents,” Scavo said. “Those who were questioning and those who were not.”

Scavo said the LSC said there were no other qualified candidates. What Blahuta did next was what appears the Chicago Public Schools has ordered principals to do across the city – lower teacher ratings and fire staff.

“We had one first grade teacher who was a golden apple teacher in the making, and she was clicked off, which really upset the parents,” Scavo said. “We also had an outstanding music teacher. My son went to school here and he had her, and now he is a musician. She was also fired.”

If the teachers choose to go on strike, the case of Norwood Park is an example of how the schools are being turned upside down and infuriating communities across the city. Perhaps a strike will force CPS to back off, or at least get the board to take notice that more and more people are upset about such changes being implemented across the city.

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Comments:

August 29, 2012 at 7:46 AM

By: John Kugler

More reports of abusive principals

Thanks Jim. This kind of reporting is needed to show one of the variables that is destroying the schools in Chicago: inadequate and non-functioning administration. The city needs to get together and purge these schools of principals that do the bidding of the central office rather than the community they serve.

August 30, 2012 at 8:22 AM

By: Katie Beese

Norwood Park School

Bullying in schools needs to be stopped and when the leader of any school appears to be doing just that to teachers, this becomes an urgent matter. NPS parents, we need some serious discussion on this...

August 30, 2012 at 11:02 AM

By: Kris Chavez

Bullying

Bullying has been a way of life at Norwood Park School for the past 13 years. Bullying by teachers of their students and the interim principal they ousted, bullying by the long term principal and his administrative staff, by parents and their children, by the PTA, and the LSC/Foundation. You're absolutely right, it needs to stop! And when the adults stop, the children will follow. Thanks for posting, Katie.

August 30, 2012 at 12:49 PM

By: Ali Kafcas

bullying

This article is not addressing the behavior of the staff and parents that drove a dedicated and well respected principal to leave after only one year.

I once heard a parent say that when she moved to Norwood she thought it was Mayberry. She now realizes it is Salem.

I enjoyed having my kids educated at Norwood for a couple of years with some of the city's best teachers. It is sad that it is no longer a happy place to teach or learn.

September 7, 2012 at 1:11 PM

By: Gwen Ginoccio

Destroying tenure is reprehensible

If this is really a plan to get rid of tenured staff, it is reprehensible. Also, it isn't altogether working. The tenured staff at NPS is excellent but many have left of their own accord. They want to teach in a less hostile environment. I'm a former librarian of the school and worked there between 2006-2011. My former school was Alexander Graham Bell. I know what an excellent school looks like and that's exactly what NPS was under Dr. Meuer. Dr. Meuer respected teachers and made students his first priority. Students loved to come to school, teachers loved teaching. Staff and students really cared about each other. What is happening here is very disheartening. The LSC has the power to do something about this. I hope they do for the sake of the children.

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