Chicago's 'turnaround' program purges veteran black teachers... Teachers file EEOC complaint, charging 'turnaround' has been eliminating large numbers of African American teachers

On Wednesday, June 10th, 2009, the Caucus of Rank and File Educators (CORE) filed charges with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging that school "turnarounds," a "Renaissance 2010" policy, have a disparate impact on African American teachers. Teachers who filed the charges contend that African American teachers suffer a disproportionately adverse impact as a result of the school turnarounds.

Many of the "hearings" on the "turnaround" proposals brought by former Chicago schools CEO Arne Duncan (now U.S. Secretary of Education) were supposedly held by "independent" hearing officers like lawyer Michael Hernandez (above, presiding over the hearing against Lois Ashford's school, Copernicus Elementary, in February 2008). Board of Education officials neglected to mention that Hernandez, along with others appointed as "hearing officers", are partners in the law firm of Franczek Sullivan. That firm, headed by James Franczek, is the largest labor law firm representing Chicago and the Chicago Board of Education in union contract negotiations and other matters. For the past five years, Hernandez's firm has been the largest outside law firm beneficiary of contracts for legal work from CPS. Although many complaint about the conflicts of interest both in 2008 and in 2009, Hernandez continues to be an "independent" hearing officer as far as CPS is concenred. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.
"The charges filed fall under Title VII which prohibits not only overt, obvious, and intentional discrimination, but also practices that are fair in form but discriminatory in operation. Essentially, a "turnaround" constitutes a layoff policy that almost exclusively impacts African American teachers," the CORE press release states.

One of the schools represented by the teachers filing the charges — Orr High School — is now nationally famous, thanks to the fact that former CPS Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan is now U.S. Secretary of Education, and Duncan has announced that he will expand 'turnaround' to every state in the USA.

Orr High School teacher joins complaint

"Wanda Evans, a teacher who worked at Orr High School for 11 years before it was turned-around, claims that the plan is designed to get rid of senior teachers and replace them with lower-salaried new teachers to save money," according to the CORE press release. "'I'm completely offended by the way veteran teachers have been treated. It's like a fast food special, let's get a two for the price of one." Evans was referring to the fact that the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL), which runs most of Chicago's so-called 'turnaround schools' (including Orr High School) hires the most inexpensive teachers — the youngest — to replace seasoned veterans.

"Ms. Evans has been nominated for Golden Apple and DRIVE teaching awards and now feels 'swept right out of the door.' the CORE press release said.

Despite a forceful presentation regarding the severe problems faced by the children and families of Copernicus Elementary School at the hearings held at CPS headquarters on February 11, 2008, the Board of Education members voted unanimously and without debate at their February 27, 2008 meeting to fire all of the teachers at Copernicus and replace them with "turnaround" teachers. During the hearings on the school closings in 2008, teachers came to the hearings to tell the "Board" about the problems facing the children of poverty and segregation in their supposedly "failing" schools. But no member of the Board of Education bothered to attend the hearings, and the Board members did not have the transcripts and other materials submitted in defense of the schools when they voted to create more "turnaround" schools. Above, Lois Ashford, who at the time was a veteran teacher at Copernicus Elementary School, began crying as she described the problems challenging the children she had taught for almost her entire career at Copernicus. Ashford was one of the majority of Copernicus teachers who were dumped by the Board at the beginning of the "turnaround" process in June 2008. Ashford is now one of those in the CORE EEOC complaint. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt. Lois Ashford, a member of CORE's steering committee, taught at Copernicus Elementary for sixteen years before losing her job to the "turnaround" process.

"In my professional opinion, Ren 2010 has been a disaster for everyone concerned," Ashford is quoted as saying in the CORE press release, "parents who have been left out of decision-making, students who are forced out of stable educational environments in their neighborhoods, and minority teachers who are being disenfranchised at an alarming rate for no other reason than they've taught for over 10 years."

The CORE statement continued: "For Karen Lewis, a teacher and co-chair of CORE, the turnarounds have undermined an entire sector of black teachers in the Chicago Public Schools. 'Since the beginning of the year, I've met black teachers who are working as substitutes. They are in tears, not just about the loss of their jobs but also about the loss of their status in the community,' Lewis said. 'These school and position closings are insidious and Draconian. They are based on only one measurement — test scores — which say more about socio-economic status than they do about teaching and learning."

Turnaround" is a program where everyone at a school is fired, including teachers, cafeteria staff, administration, and every other employee on site. This program is a part of "Renaissance 2010" which is Mayor Daley's program to overhaul the Chicago Public Schools through privatization and destabilization of the city's schools.

CORE researchers, looking at statistics compiled by the Illinois State Board of Education, concluded that since 2002, when the term "Renaissance Schools" was first used in relation to the closing of Dodge, Terrell and Williams elementary schools, the percentage of African American teachers in CPS has dropped from 39.4 to 31.6.

Currently, there are 2,000 fewer Black teachers working in CPS than there were in 2002. CORE is the reform caucus of the Chicago Teachers Union that represents rank-and-file members. The group is composed of teachers, retired teachers, educational staff and other champions of public education who hope to democratize the Chicago Teachers Union and turn it into an organization that fights on behalf of its members and the students they teach.

Board of Education members avoided hearings, refused to read complete record

The seven members of the Chicago Board of Education who voted to turnaround six schools on February 2008 did not attend any of the hearings on the schools that were included on what by then had become known as "Arne Duncan's Hit List." In many ways, given the stakes for parents, children, teachers, and other staff, the hearings themselves by 2008 had become a cruel — and carefully staged — hoax. The Copernicus hearing was typical. The hearing itself was deliberately scheduled by Arne Duncan's staff to take place at 3:00 p.m., even though most of the teachers from Copernicus were working until 15 minutes before the hearing began at a school in the impoverished Englewood community eight miles south of the CPS headquarters where the hearing took place.

None of the members of the Board of Education attended the Copernicus hearing, but CPS officials made it seem like someone was in attendance. Every day and night during the hearings (not merely in 2008, but in 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2009), mid-level bureaucrats from various CPS departments were told to wear suits and sit in the executive chairs behind the railing in the Chicago Board of Education's meeting chambers at 125 S. Clark St.

But it was not only that the Board of Education avoided the hearings. Afterwards, the Board members refused to discuss their actions during the period of the hearings and their votes. Substance requested an interview with each of the seven members of the Board who voted to affirm the recommendation of the hearing officer at the February 27, 2008, Board meeting. The Board's answer, through the "Communications Department," was as follows: "None of the members of the Chicago Board of Education has the time to be interviewed by Substance on this matter." Substance also learned during the course of the hearings and the votes that, as parents had charged, the entire thing was a "done deal." Basically, the Board was assembled on February 27 to affirm the recommendation of the Chief Executive Officer, Arne Duncan, to reconstitute each of the six schools on the 2008 Hit List. Not one member of the Board of Education attended a hearing in 2008. Not one member of the Chicago Board of Education read the complete record, including the transcript and various additional documents put into the record by parents, teachers, and others before their unanimous vote on February 27, 2008.

Like the corporate boards (on which many of them serve), the seven members of the Chicago Board of Education, all appointed by Mayor Richard M. Daley, basically voted without reviewing the facts or the record to rubber stamp the school closing policies of Arne Duncan.

A liturgy of teacher bashing and destruction

By February 2008, Substance had covered almost all of the school closing hearings that had taken place beginning with the attacks by Arne Duncan and Michael Scott (then, as now, Board President) on Dodge, Terrell and Williams elementary schools. Each of the hearings, like the hearings in 2008 against the teachers at Copernicus and Orr, was carefully orchestrated (and very expensive). With each new iteration of the destruction of the schools, the Board of Education developed a few addition items in its game place.

The scheduling of the Copernicus hearing for 3:00 p.m. was an example. Teachers being warned not to speak out publicly against the attacks on their schools (virtually all of them were told that if they kept their mouths shut, there might be a job for them under the "New School" being put in; nobody was told that fewer than ten percent of the veteran teachers were kept at any of the "turnaround" schools) .

But the structure of the "hearings" removed virtually all possibility of true public input, and the fact that members of the Chicago Board of Education and its top officials (including then-CEO Arne Duncan) didn't even attend the hearings made them a dubious forum, at best.

The structure of each of the "hearings" was the same and has been for several years.

No questions answered

At the time for which the hearing is scheduled, the hearing officer, more often than not a long-term contractor for the Chicago Board of Education, announces the hearing and reads from a script. That script contains a note that the purpose of the hearing is not to answer questions.

The first three, four, or five speakers at the hearing are officials of the Chicago Public Schools -- but in no case has the Chief Executive Officer (between 2002 and 2008, Arne Duncan) or the Chief Education Officer (during most of the past eight years, Barbara Eason Watkins) ever testified at a hearing. The actual testimony is given by a mid-level official in the school system's huge bureaucracy.

The hearing against Copernicus Elementary School, where Lois Ashford taught, was scheduled for 3:00 p.m. on Wednesday, February 13, 2008, a school day. The majority of the teachers and other staff at Copernicus were unable to get downtown for the hearing, many of them because they had after-school commitments including programs at the school.

The formal notice of the hearing was placed in the two daily newspapers of Chicago (the Sun-Times and Tribune), although like most government ads its was not read by most people. The logistics for the hearings were handled for Arne Duncan during his years as Chief Executive Officer of CPS by Antonia Whalen, who at the time of the Copernicus hearing was holding the title "Deputy to the Chief Education Officer".

Policies written to target certain schools

The first two items read into the record are summaries of the Illinois law pertaining to "Remediation and Probation" and the Chicago Board of Education policy on remediation and probation. Each year during the Duncan term, the policy in Chicago was revised to ensure that certain schools would meet the criteria and be closed.

There is also a pefunctory reading of the procedures for hearings. While most of the teachers, parents, administrators and alumni of the targeted schools believed the hearings were actually being conducted to gather information and answer questions, the tiers of procedures, including the hearing procedures, made it clear that the purpose of the hearing was actually to clarify whether the Chief Executive Officer (Duncan for almost all the years in question) was following the procedure that Duncan's staff had written and the Board of Education appointed by Mayor Daley had approved.

The hearing officer also made clear at each hearing that he was going to prepare a summary "recommendation" to the Chicago Board of Education. What was not in the script was that the hearing officer's recommendation, even if it was against the recommendation of the CEO to "turnaround" the school, could be overridden by the Board's vote.

Legal information on the complaint can be obtained by calling attorney Jennifer Purcell, Attorney, Robin Potter & Associates, (312) 861-1800., jennifer.n.


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