Prescott Teachers Battle ‘New Leaders’ Tyrant…

May 15, 2009

The Renaissance 2010 Plan is to privatize and close as many public schools and reopen them as charter or contract schools with no union representation and less public oversight.

This plan is also being implemented inside public schools where the new administration is on a witch hunt to drive out tenured teachers — using "unsatisfactory" teacher ratings and other bureaucratic means — and bring in new, young teachers to implement a program based heavily on the onerous testing requirements of No Child Left Behind.

[img=487]The current case at Prescott Elementary School, located at 1632 W. Wrightwood on the western edge of Chicago's wealthy Lincoln Park neigh-borhood, is a vivid example of the Chicago Board of Education’s drive to con-tinue teacher bashing and implement a rigid testing and assessment regime. A new principal (who was fired by the Local School Council at Ravenswood Elementary School after battling with the teachers) has come to Prescott this school year to go to war against the teaching staff.

Veteran teachers 'unsatisfactory' to new principal

Veteran teachers with superior ratings over the years are suddenly receiving unsatisfactory ratings. Hard-working clerks and teacher aids are being put on suspension with no pay due to questionable charges, and what teachers characterize as "psychological terror" has forced three teachers to go on medical leave. A few others were forced to leave mid-year, according to Prescott teachers, some of whom have filed grievances and complained to the Board of Education, Chicago Teachers Union and local politicians.

So far, however, nobody has come to the defense of the teachers.

"We’ve been set up to fail," said Prescott CTU delegate Suzanne Dunn, who was just elected to the LSC. Dunn told Substance that she has been reassigned as Prescott's new 8th grade math teacher — after teaching Special Education for years. This is a tactic principals use to drive out tenured teachers because she has no Middle School endorsement, Dunn said.

Controversial new principal takes over

Prescott Local School Council meeting on May 12, 2009. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.Erin Roche just signed a four-year contract to serve as the principal at Prescott Elementary School at the beginning of the 2008 – 2009 school year.

But Roche had already tried (and failed) what he is doing at Prescott at another nearby elementary school, Ravenswood. At Ravenswood, Roche had given many teachers an unsatisfactory rating at the end of a school year, alleg-edly after he found out which teachers supported his ouster.

According to Michael Kane, a field rep for the Chicago Teachers Union, the Ravenswood case was referred to the CPS Labor Relations Board, and the seven teachers’ ratings that were changed from superior to satisfactory by Roche were "rescinded."

"It seems history is repeating itself, as Mr. Roche appears to have a master plan to rid Prescott School of all the teachers and staff employed there before his arrival," stated a letter addressed to State Representative John Fritchey, signed by 14 Prescott teachers and teacher aids.

The letter included the following grievances: placing a school clerk on two separate suspensions without pay; terminating two non-tenured teachers; trying to fire a former Golden Apple Teacher nominee due to an unsatisfactory rating; and the attempted closing of two Special Education programs in June 2009.

'Serious instructional weaknesses' -- or pretexts to purge veteran teachers?

Amy Zellman, the school’s literacy coach, who will be terminated at the end of the year due to "serious instructional weaknesses," according to Roche's version of reality. She said Roche told her during his lengthy teacher evaluations that one of the weaknesses he perceived was that she had the shades pulled down in her classroom when he observed. He said that was wrong because "research shows" children learn better in the sun. Zellman said she then tried to explain to the new principal that at certain times of the day the sun would be directly in the children’s eyes, and some would not be able to see anything because of the glare.

Prescott Principal Erin Roche (left) and LSC member Jennifer Lister (right) during the LSC meeting on May 12. Roche demanded that Substance questions be put in writing and refused to answer questions that were not in writing. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt."He came in with an agenda to get rid of us all, and we’re not a turnaround school," Zellman said. "He has found 'instructional weaknesses' that are not statistically possible."

The Prescott case is probably being closely watched by the pro-charter privatization zealots to see how one can break a unionized school with tenured teachers and destroy any so-called protections unions offer its employees. Prescott already seems to be trying to send its eighth graders to charter high schools, rather than to regular public high schools, according to a report at the May meeting of the school's Local School Council (LSC).

Union support weak as persecutions grow

Despite the questionable charges Roche is using to suspend one teacher and two educational support personnel — a teacher’s aid and the school clerk — the school's CTU field rep Gregg Cox has not been able to convince the Labor Relations Board to drop the demeaning charges.

Zellman is the third teacher to go on leave from the school due to the undue stress she has had to endure under his brief reign. She said she was frightened to even go to a one-on-one meeting in his office just after another employee had accused the principal of sexual harassment.

Lilia Cano is the school secretary who he has suspended twice, the second time for 15 days with no pay. She is currently out on workman’s comp due to an injury on the job that she attributed to her boss.

She said her problems at work began when he wanted her to leave and offered to write a recommendation, but she did not agree right away. He then started faulting her for petty things, like not filing things on time that she says are not true. She was then placed on suspension without pay.

Cano said Roche told her that if she had sex with him everything would be ok. She then filed a police report before contacting the CPS Law Department. According to Cano, the Law Department interviewed Roche and determined that because it was only her word against his, they could not pursue the case.

Perhaps even more disturbing has been the union’s lack of support for its dues paying members.

Cano, a school clerk, said at the second disciplinary hearing before the Labor Relations Board, her union representative, June Davis, did not defend Cano, and told her privately not to fight but rather go look for another job.

"June Davis only said at the hearing that I have to do better," Cano said by phone. "I said 'You’re supposed to fight for me!' But she just said to transfer to another school." CTU staff members contacted by Substance have referred messages to the union's publicist, Rose Maria Genova. Genova then refuses to comment on the record about the incidents while blocking access to the staff involved.

'New Leaders for New Schools' Program to Purge Veteran Teachers?

Roche is a product of the "New Leaders for New Schools" training of principals. According to information provided to Substance, he served as the assistant principal at Boone Elementary and Noble Street Charter School, among other places.

According to teacher Kathy Jacobs, the 'New Leaders' program includes a 60-page Rand Report which includes counseling out so-called 'low-performing' teachers who don’t buy into a principal's philosophy and 'rigor-ous curriculum and data driven instruction.' The aim of the program seems to be to create an executive class of principals — the "CEOs of the schools" — just as executives in private business (especially banking) have created the greatest economic crisis in modern times.

Roche's behavior, whatever his instructional philosophy, has struck most teachers as bizarre.

"He cut off all our padlocks on the cabinets without telling us and he threw out all the textbooks," Jacobs said. Jacobs said his reports when he suspends teachers or teacher aids or gives unsatisfactory ratings are silly.

"He’ll say stuff like 'Research says you shouldn’t take any more than 16 to 19 seconds to move from center to center' — and these are eight year olds," Jacobs told Substance. "In my whole 36 years of teaching I have never heard of teachers being suspended without pay."

Zellman, who serves as the literacy coach, said Roche implemented a new reading and writing program — courtesy, he said, of the Erickson Institute — that is based on read alouds with no textbooks, something especially difficult for English language learners or others who need extra help.

Erickson Institute bashing tenure, veteran teachers

Another Erickson Institute feature he tried to force the teachers to do is videotaping.

According to Debbie Hines, the fourth grade teacher, the administration was asking all the teachers to agree to videotaping lessons in their classrooms. When Hines said she refused, Jeffery Porter, the principal-in-training, said that this would hurt her teacher evaluation.

Several of the teachers, including veteran Jacobs, said they felt pressured into having to agree to being videotaped because of the fear the new regime has instilled to punish any so-called 'insubordination' with suspensions or other forms of punishment.

"(Jacobs) said he had this crazy smile on his face and she said it scared her," teacher Brenda Chandler said. Chandler added that it was very unfair to make the teachers perform a lesson on guided reading in front of a camera after only one day of training at the Erickson Institute. She said she is sure that this was to set up the teachers to fail because they are not familiar with teaching the "Erickson" way.

"When I told him I didn’t feel comfortable doing it, he said to call the union and that no one could stop it," Chandler said. But that’s just what CPS ordered after the legal department was contacted. The Law Department issued a "cease and desist" order to stop all videotaping without the consent of those to be videotaped, according to the teachers.

Driving out special education and English language learners

Another feature of Roche’s high-stakes testing philosophy is driving out programs — much as charters have been known to do — that would interfere with a goal of raising the testing 'bottom line.'

This year most of the Special Education program is being eliminated and transferred to other schools, while the bilingual ESL teacher has gone on medical leave due to the constant harassment and criticism of her program that includes native language instruction which is mandated by state law.

This is especially curious, many teachers say, given Roche’s background. Teachers told Substance that Roche served in Honduras in the Peace Corps, and worked with the Chicago Public Schools in creating Telpochcalli, a school dedicated to developing bilingual English/Spanish students.

Prescott teachers also noted that he does not publish the newsletter in Spanish, even though the school is primarily Hispanic and one LSC member needs Spanish translation.

Naomi Counter-Ohiri is a parent whose child is in the TMH (trainable mentally handicap) program.

She said she lives in the neighborhood and depends on her local school’s services. However, if Roche's cuts in special education are implemented in June, her daughter will have to travel more than nine miles by bus to McNair School in the Austin neighborhood for the same program.

She said her daughter doesn’t adjust well to changing environments, which will only add to her dysfunction. She told Substance she finds it disturbing that the school will promote a pre-kindergarten tuition-based program and a second pre-k program for all while kicking out vulnerable children who need special services.

"It’s almost like they’re trying to put them back in the closest so no one can see them," said special education teacher Brenda Chandler, who is also experiencing harassment from her new principal. "Before you didn’t know if they had a sister or brother because they didn’t go to school and were hid from sight and the Board is taking them back to that."

At least some of the school's special education families are reportedly preparing a complaint charging Roche with violations of Illinois and federal law in his purging of the special education children and programs from Prescott.

Questions about testing focus. Some support for Roche

Another Prescott teacher noted that there were no Halloween costumes allowed, no assemblies and no Valentine’s Day parties, and parties are to be kept very short because they "take away from learning."

Learning in this case seems to be devoted to raising test scores and creating what Roche calls an "elite" school based exclusively on standardized testing and numbers.

Play, considered a very important part of a child’s emotional development, is being driven out thanks to the testing drive which is used as a sole criteria to close many Chicago public schools.

On the other hand, there are those who believe in the changes Roche has brought to the school.

For example, one primary teacher who wished to remain anonymous said Prescott had no reading programs in place before Roche arrived, and now he has implemented "several successful ones."

A number of Ravenswood parents on the District299 blog ( also supported the controversial administrator before he was ousted from Ravenswood, while it became clear over time the majority opposed his methods.

"Mr. Roche at Ravenswood is a principal who is doing everything right," said one anonymous parent blogger during lengthy discussions about the controversial principal more than a year ago. "By all accounts, in four short years in his post, he has made Ravenswood a model of what CPS appears to be trying to accomplish city-wide: truly diverse (both economically and culturally) and a school with strong instructional vision."

There were also many on the District299 blog who applauded his removal: "Mr. Roche is a bully in the worse form," another blogger wrote. "Perhaps if he tried to work with the teachers and the parents who needed help the most he would have gotten more votes."

Anonymous blogging is a growing means by which parents, teachers and students are expressing their concerns about many Chicago schools.

LSC conflicts

According to the teachers, Jennifer Lister, the vice president of the Prescott LSC, was instrumental in bringing Roche to the school from Ravenswood. Her goal is to make Prescott an "elite" school in the neighborhood, with the word elite used regularly in the school’s newsletter.

Lister did not respond to Substance for an interview.

It appears Roche has backers at the top to continue his reign of terror on the current teaching staff in order to implement his vision of a new school.

Flavia Hernandez, "Chief Officer of Elementary Areas and Schools" for Chicago Public Schools, said the Board fully supports Roche’s tactics to implement change at the school. "In summary, Prescott School was in need of change (you agreed), which Mr. Roche is implementing. Rest assured that the Area 6 Instruction Officer will continue to support the principal on reflecting on his approach to improve the school’s instructional focus, climate and atmosphere," Hernandez wrote in a letter to the Prescott teachers dated March 24.

Roche refuses to answer Substance questions

At the recent May 12 LSC meeting, Roche told Substance to submit all questions in writing beforehand. The last time such a strange request was made to this reporter was in Moscow by the U.S. Ambassador to Russia Thomas Pickering, considered at one point a front-runner for the position of Sec-retary of State in the Clinton administration.

While one of the highest ranking state department officials in 1994 granted this reporter an interview, Roche, the Chicago primary school principal, has refused to respond to the written questions, such as why would the school have a substitute teaching the 8th grade when so much emphasis is being placed on placing Prescott graduates into "elite" city high schools.

When pressed in his office after the LSC meeting about his prior experience at Ravenswood, Roche looked hard and then said in passing that "everyone has their own opinions."

What is happening at Prescott is similar to what is happening to many schools in gentrified areas where Hispanic and African American children are being driven out of wealthy areas on the north side to be replaced with higher income students.

Carpenter School was closed this year and will be replaced by the new magnet Ogden High School, LaSalle Academy is replacing Andersen School in Wicker Park and the Disney Magnet II Elementary School has replaced Irving Park Middle School located in an area surrounded by million dollar homes. All three are Latino schools that have been closed or are being phased out.

The 'flushing a school' of veteran teachers philosophy

Many of the teachers fully supported Roche when he was named the new principal last summer. The Prescott teachers remember their first meeting with their new principal.

"He said there will be a lot of changes in here and if you don’t agree I will do everything I can to help you find another place to go," Dunn said. "He also said it takes eight years to flush a school."

Roche’s two formal goals are to increase student enrollment and student achievement.

"Last year, when I arrived at Prescott, CPS insiders were considering closing Prescott. This clear strategic plan contributed to convincing them to remove our school from the closing list," Roche wrote in the April Prescott newsletter for parents.

As a result of the reform efforts, Roche wrote, the district has increased funding to the school, including $10,000 to re-surface the parking lot and playground, $15,000 to install wrought-iron fencing around the playground, $25,000 to improve and secure tresses in the school roof and $5,000 to remove peeling paint.

Many public schools — such as Gallistel on the far south side — have been requesting funds for years to fix their buildings but have yet to receive the funding that CPS officials say they do not have.

One teacher questioned how devoted the principal is to the children according to his allocation of technology funding. The school allocated $4,000 for computers for the children, yet $10,000 for two computers for the administration.

Chandler said her early childhood special education program has been closed and moved to a non-disclosed location.

"You don’t move out what you already have in place, Chandler said. "He’s clearly discriminating against the special ed kids."

Chandler added that Roche claimed the Office of Special Services called to tell him that they are moving the program intact to another location with the teacher and the students. Less than a week later Chandler found out that her students were going to five different existing early childhood special education programs.

"Generally the OSS never closes or moves their programs because the principals have the right to determine if they want special education programs and the principals have agreed taking them," Chandler said.

At Substance press time, it appears that a major complaint to state and federal authorities will cause a review of Roche's attempts to get rid of most of the school's special education programs.

LSC machinations

Control of the Local School Council is the key to a principal staying in power. According to Jacobs, the LSC needed four votes to oust Roche at Ravenswood, which was accomplished when two teachers convinced two parents to vote out the controversial headmaster, perhaps sparking his later revenge on the teachers by lowering their evaluation ratings.

This year it seems Roche has got his eggs in order. According to Chandler, Lister has packed the Prescott LSC with several community members, while one of the teacher representatives who Roche hired was elected over a veteran teacher under suspect conditions. Dunn, the current CTU delegate battling Roche, was later elected to the LSC, thanks largely to "poll watchers."

One reason demanding high-income parents may like Roche is his ap-pearance. Chandler noted that he knows every child’s name, something parents appreciate, while a beautiful mosaic is being completed on the outside of the building to give the appearance of an excellent school.

"This is the first principal I worked for who knows all the kids’ first names," said Chandler who has worked 30 years as a teacher. "But it doesn’t mean anything in terms of what’s happening inside the building."

Roche has also played the teachers off each other to make them do his dirty work. Chandler explained that there are those he just hired who will not associate with the rest of the teaching staff that is being harassed, while others who thought early on that they were among the "in" people Roche favored. The tables were then quickly turned and an all out war was declared on any remaining vestiges of staff hired before his arrival.

Two months ago CTU president Marilyn Stewart and a handful of staff members met with the Prescott teachers for two hours to hear their horror stories. Stewart told them there is a similar situation at Gunsaulus Elemen-tary on the southside and that she would call CPS Chief Education Officer Barbara Eason-Watkins that night. She also suggested that the Gunsaulus teachers get together with the Prescott teachers and meet with Chicago school’s chief Ron Huberman, Dunn said.

The teachers have not heard from Stewart since that meeting and she brushed it off at the recent Chicago teacher’s delegates meeting May 6 when questioned about it. Prescott delegate Dunn asked Stewart if she actually called Eason-Wakins.

"I called her that night and she said she’d call someone over to investigate," Stewart told Dunn at the meeting.

So far the only known investigation by CPS was the report by the chief of the Chicago elementary schools who fully supports Roche and his controversial, if not downright sadistic, ways.

When Substance tried to contact CTU field rep Cox — who the teachers say rarely returns their phone calls and has done very little to support them — Rose-Marie Genova, the CTU’s publicist, returned the call and said she would ask Stewart what efforts are being made to rectify the situation. Genova never returned Substance’s subsequent calls to clarify if Stewart plans on doing anything to protect her members whose livelihoods are being de-stroyed and their reputations slandered.

In the meantime, what some teachers are calling "the house of horrors" on Wrightwood and Ashland continues. The day after Substance visited the LSC meeting and expressed incredulity that Lister and the Board did not allow any public participation, Lister and some other members tried to observe learning in the teachers’ classrooms the next day, something reserved for the administration.

And Roche continues to wield his power with the Board of Ed perhaps looking nervously on as his actions look more and more like someone psychotic working with children and their teachers.

"This man is crazy," said Zellman. "We have to get him out!" 