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THEY CLOSED MY SCHOOL. De La Cruz suffers indignities during final weeks

THEY CLOSED MY SCHOOL -- A Substance series Editor's Introduction by George N. Schmidt. Beginning with this series of letters, Substance will present first person narratives from teachers, students and others from the Chicago schools that were closed at the end of the 2008-2009 school year. All we are asking is that people tell their stories in their own names. We will see how much we can follow up with each of these stories as time permits.

February 14, 2008. Special Education students have been hardest hit by the school closings orchestrated by the Duncan administration and approved by the Chicago Board of Education between 2002 and 2009. Above, De La Cruz special education student Iliana Mojica prepared testimony for the 'Board of Education' talking about how De La Cruz school had been the place where she was finally able to begin to get an education, thanks to the school's small and caring environment. Mojica broke down and was unable to complete the reading of her statement to the 'Board' on the night of February 14, 2008, when the hearing took place. What she did not know was that not one member of the Chicago Board of Education was present that night for the hearing, and that her testimony, as well as more than 80 pages of testimony from students, parents, teachers, and others on behalf of De La Cruz, would not even be read by the seven members of the Chicago Board of Education before they voted, unanimously and without debate, at their February 27, 2008, meeting, to destroy De La Cruz. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.The 'hearing' on the closing of De La Cruz was held on February 14, 2008, in the chambers of the Chicago Board of Education's headquarters at 125 S. Clark St. Chicago. The transcript of the hearing, which Substance acquired after a request under the Freedom of Information Act, is 85 pages long. Not one person (except for the Board's own officials) spoke in favor of the proposal by then-CEO Arne Duncan to close De La Cruz. At the time the seven Board members voted on Duncan's proposal to close De La Cruz, not one of the Board members had read the transcript or the more than 50 pages of letters and other materials submitted by teachers, parents, students, and administrators against the closing of De La Cruz.

During many of the hearings in 2008 and 2009, students and others who testified became emotional and even began to cry. The strong support networks from the schools on the Arne Duncan 'Hit List' came forward to comfort them during the hearings. Above, teacher Kristine Mayle (left) and principal Katherine Konopasak (right) helped Iliana Mojica complete her testimony to the 'Board' asking that De La Crus not be closed. Mjoica and the other students and parents in the room did not know that none of the members of the Board of Education who would later vote to close her school were listening or in the room. The middle aged men and women siting in the 'Board' seats were basically bureaucrats who were assigned to be there, looking like important people during the dozens of hearings each year. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.In fact, on February 27, 2008, when the seven members of the Board of Education voted unanimously and without debate to close De La Cruz, not one of them had attended the hearing, read the transcript, or otherwise taken any interest at all in the human aspect of the De La Cruz school. The Board also ignored the fact that the hearing officer hired by and paid for by the Board, Respicio Vazquez, was a partner in the law firm of Franczek Sullivan PC, which at the time and since has been the largest outside law firm to receive Board work as a legal contractor. During 2008, Vazquez's firm received more than a half million dollars in work from the Chicago Board of Education. Yet Vazquez during the hearing identified himself as an 'independent' hearing officer, and the same statement was repeated in Arne Duncan's Board Report which (when voted on by the Board) sealed the fate of De La Cruz.

The Final Days of De La Cruz...A free-for-all of greed

By Kristine Mayle

Below are two more letters from De La Cruz students about the events of today. I will write my own letter tonight too, once I am able to process the madness I saw today.

They let the Area 10 principals into the building to take and claim whatever they could get their hands on... while teachers were trying to close up for the year and with students present!

Above: The computer and computer table tagged as mentioned in this story. Substance photo by Kristine Mayle.I even had a principal reach over my head while I was typing to put a sticker on my classroom computer to claim it as her own. WHILE I WAS TYPING.

She didn't say a word, just reached over me. Shocking behavior all around. One student compared it to when her grandma died and all the relatives rushed her house to claim and fight over her property. I do not understand why they couldn't have had this free-for-all next week, when teachers and students were out of the building. Sheesh.

Alejandra Martinez

Dear Editor,

Today, 6-10-09, on our last day of school, instead of enjoying ourselves and saying our last goodbye’s to one another, were helping our teachers pack-up supplies so that they can be picked up and taken to other schools. I am an 8th grade graduate at De La Cruz Academy that feels really bed about having her school being closed. We had most of our stuff taken away from us even before school ended.

Today we had to have other people from other schools come into our school and take our stuff. The thing I couldn’t stand the most was that they still wanted us to take our own stuff into their cars so that they could be taken away. I’ve been in De La Cruz for four year’s and feel really bad and angry that the board is closing our school. I am really going to miss this school and all its teachers because of all the help and support they have given me. Well, I just hope that the Board decides to change their minds and leave De La Cruz for longer or if possible for ever.

Sincerely, Alejandra Martinez

Anallelit Flores

Dear Editor,

Dictionaries and other books were also 'tagged' with PostIt Notes as the scavenger hunt by principal at Chicago's De La Cruz school went on during the school's final week. Substance photo by Kristine Mayle.I am really disappointed because my school De La Cruz is closing. It is very sad because I have been in De La Cruz for four years. I already graduated on June 8, 2009 and it was the best day of my life. The experiences I had are so many that it is hard for me knowing that they are closing. This year I am so thankful to my principal beause she took us to so many fieldtrips and places I had never been to before. I'm going to miss all my teachers and friends. Now that we are going on to high school, I'm not going to be able to see them any more. My school is closing and it is not fair how other principals from other schools come and take away our supplies, cabinets, books and other things. Now, De La Cruz is going to sit empty with only memories. It's unfortunate that the Board of Education chose to permanently close this wonderful school.

Sincerely,

Anallelit Flores

Monserrat Dura

Dear Editor,

Today is my last day in school with my friends and teachers, and it's very sad beause we are cleaning our rooms and helping around.

People from other schools are coming and taking our things that once was ours and now they are going to different places. This is not fair what they're doing to us.

Like most of the hearing officers hired by the Duncan administration to conduct the hearings on school closings between 2002 and 2009, Respicio Vazquez (above) told the hearings that he was an "independent" hearing officer and that his report to the Board would be carefully considering the testimony and exhibits presented to him. At the time of the De La Cruz hearing in February 2008, Vazquez was a partner in the law firm of Franczek Sullivan, PC, which had just negotiated the Chicago Teachers Union contract on behalf of the Chicago Board of Education. One month before the De La Cruz hearing, Vazquez's law firm was paid $200,000 by the Chicago Board of Education for "services to the Board for general litigation, labor negotiations, consultation, and strategy developments" (Board Report 08-0123-AR2, January 23, 2008). At one point during the De La Cruz hearing, Vazquez refused to slow down the pace of testimony so that dozens of Spanish-speaking parents and children could receive adequate translation and threatened to have a teacher who protested is discrimination removed from the chambers by Board security staff. Above, Vazequez is telling Whittier Elementary School teacher Norine Gutekanst, who had taken the floor to object to the discrimination against bilingual families, that he will have security remove her if she continues to 'disrupt' the hearing. Substance photo by George N. Schmidt.I see people crying today because memories came back to them. I have 4 years in De La Cruz and it's sad watching my school getting empty each hour.

De La Cruz is not the only school that is closing forever and I know that many people are really sad about it. I'm here watching all my teachers packing things and they are really angry because people is coming in and taking their things and not even saying excuse me or something! On February 14, 2008, at the time of the hearing on the proposed closing of De La Cruz Elementary School, parents, teachers and students had been led to believe that they would be presenting their testimony to the 'Board' (i.e. the Chicago Board of Education) and to the Chief Executive Officer, Arne Duncan (at the time). Both beliefs were not true. During the 2008 hearings, the Duncan administration provided a cast of characters (above) seated in the Board chambers in seats where the public believed the actual members of the Board of Education were sitting. Each night, the bureaucrats in the 'Board' seats changed, but every night attendance was taken. Some of those in the seats were regulars, like the Board's Demographics chief, James Dispensa (far left above), but most were a rotating cast of mid-level executives dependent on the patronage system at CPS for their continued $90,000 to $140,000 per year jobs. Not one of the people in the photograph above, which was taken during the Da La Cruz hearing, is a member of the Board of Education of the City of Chicago. Substance photograph by George N. Schmidt.Anyways, I had many good memories in here. I am also very thankful with all my teachers and my principal because they helped me a lot this year and all the fun times we had. No school or no one will take them away from us. Well this is only me but I know all my friends have memories and good ones. Thanks for all the good memories De La Cruz! The last generation of De La Cruz, Class of "09"!

Sincerely,

Monserrat Duran



Comments:

June 15, 2009 at 10:21 PM

By: Kugler

Conditioning

that is what cps wants. everyone fighting and taking from each other. I have not officially be cut yet, but the lab i built with my students over five years with donations, grants and volunteer work. last Friday it was cleaned out without notice to me. the greatest prize though i have is that they can never take away what we did because it is in our minds and hearts. We can build another school and anther lab. The best part of all of this is that our students can now see who really is their friend and cares for them. That is one lesson they will never forget because they say it with their own eyes and no one can tell them what they saw. It is a fact that will always be in their heart and they will never forget.

One day our children will grow up and remember who hurt them.

June 15, 2009 at 10:37 PM

By: a grievance

kugler

Can you grieve since you did not get your walking papers yet?

June 16, 2009 at 7:53 AM

By: teacher

teacher

can anyone send a copy of this to Sen. lightford and Rep. Soto? They need to see this article. Please get it to them.

June 16, 2009 at 3:04 PM

By: possibilities

documentation is important

fair practices

disruption of learning environment irremediable acts

health and safety(mental stress)

past practice

harassment

non-certified staff inside classroom

violation of state instructional time

if sp ed students then maybe confidentiality?

throw in the kitchen sink.

they have no regard for children and their welfare, why be nice to people that harm children.

DO WHATEVER IT TAKES TO EXPOSE THE HARM HAPPENING TO OUR CHILDREN.

June 17, 2009 at 1:55 AM

By: Kristine Mayle

De La Cruz Teacher

George, thank you for posting our story. I think it is important to let people see the real stories behind all of the closing/turnaround/phase outs. The emotional toll on students and staff is tremendous and has been ignored or dismissed by the Board and other decision makers. Their words and actions have shown a complete disregard for children and employees. At the hearing for my own school last year and the many others that I attended this year, I repeatedly saw students, parents, community members and school staff completely ignored by hearing officers in person (then later by Board members with their rulings) who did not take into account the data and narratives given by the people who know the actual schools best, the people who learn in, work in and depend upon them. At the hearing for Reed Elementary this year Fred Bates, the hearing officer, dismissed students’ pleas to be heard by saying something to the effect that the schools he had attended were no longer there and that he “got over it” and so should the students. At the New Schools Expo, a group of students tried to tell Rufus Williams (who was still Board President at the time) how the closing of Englewood had affected their siblings. Williams told one girl that she was wrong and didn’t understand the situation. When she told him how her sister had been bounced from school to school after Englewood had closed, he told her that her story was impossible and essentially called her a liar.

The entire closing process was traumatic and disrespectful to all involved on so many levels, from the way students and teachers are informed, to the hearing process, to the stress throughout the year knowing that students were losing one of the few stable safe places in their community and that staff members would soon be out of a job. The final weeks of school and the closing procedures were just an additional slap in the face.

Word came from the Board that we would be closing shortly before ISAT testing last year. This was after our principal had proudly and excitedly called the staff together earlier in the year for a special meeting to tell us that Arne Duncan had personally given her his word that we would NOT be closing. They insisted that students be informed immediately after we got word and would not let us delay telling students until a less stressful time of year. We were told that our hearing would be a chance to be heard by the Board. Our students poured their hearts out in letters to the Board begging to keep the school open. The letters spoke of the gains students had made in our small school environment. Students told of the family feeling within the school, the sense of community and safety they had specifically because we were so small. They never read our letters. We brought a busload of people to testify at the hearings, from our own school and two other schools within our community. Our testimony was never heard by members of the Board.

Despite the many traumas of the year, our students continued to work hard. Their ISAT scores rose. They read more. Almost all of them returned for our final year knowing that we would be closing.

This year we all continued to work hard. We received a Spotlight Award from the Illinois Board of Education (which was only given to 500 schools in the entire state) for our consistent gains over time in a low-income school serving minority students. We passed the ISBE 40 Special Education audit. Auditors told us that we had done an “amazing” job and that we were “one of the best schools they had seen” in terms of our meeting the needs of our special education population. Despite our impending closing, teachers unanimously voted to continue working to pursue AVID certification. We became certified this spring. Ironically, we received a banner from AVID congratulating us on our final day of school just last week.

Our school motto was “Live with Dignity” and I can honestly say that the students and staff of De La Cruz approached the closing process with much dignity despite all of the deception and disrespect we received from CPS, especially in our final week. The free-for-all described above was the final slap in the face from the Board. They insisted that other principals from our area would be allowed to have first dibs on our equipment and supplies. I completely understand this. It makes sense to redistribute the area’s assets to other schools that will remain open. What I cannot understand, is why they couldn’t wait until we were actually closed to start the scavenging process. It was mean enough to put the staff through it, but it was completely unacceptable to do it when students were present. Our students were already saddened by the closing of the school. I cannot count how many students asked in the months leading up to the closure, “but how will I come back and visit you next year?” They loved the school so much that they insisted on coming back and helping teachers pack up even after they had already received their diplomas at graduation on Monday. Other students that had graduated in previous years also came back to help and say goodbye one final time.

To their credit, some of the principals were very nice about the process. One even hugged teachers and apologized for tagging things in our presence. She explained that she had wanted to wait until the following week, but knew that the items she needed for her own school would have already been claimed had she waited since the area had posted that things would be available on June 10. Others were not so compassionate. The principal that tagged the computer while I was working on it did not even acknowledge the presence of any of the teachers as she entered their rooms. She came in, frantically tagged whatever she could, then ran on to the next room without even an “excuse me” or “hello.”

The students that submitted the letters above came to me in tears after they watched someone snatch the security guard’s chair practically out from under him. From what they said, he stepped away from his desk to help someone and when he came back, someone had rolled his chair out to the parking lot to take back to their school. This was on Wednesday, school wasn’t officially over until Friday.

I realize that adolescents can be dramatic, and I know that what seems like a gigantic deal one day can quickly be forgotten the next. I take some comfort in this. What these students will not soon forget is the way that they were marginalized and disregarded by the Board. They were brave enough to do the right thing by standing up at the hearing and testifying and/or by writing letters to the Board and their input was ignored. The Board disrespected them by insisting that they be informed of the closing right before ISATs and then did it again by scheduling the scavenging of the building while students were still present.

I was one of the lucky few staff members to find employment for next year. If anyone reading this knows of any job openings, please let me know at kamayle@gmail.com. De La Cruz staff members are seeking employment in the following areas: teachers (all middle school subject areas, including music), teacher assistants (one with extensive experience in Pre-K, another with experience in bilingual special ed), counselor, security, engineer, and administration.

June 17, 2009 at 8:40 AM

By: Carol

Teacher at DLC

Kristine,

What you have done for ALL of us at De La Cruz was above and beyond the call of duty. I was one of the last orginal teachers from 8 years ago left and it tore me apart to see what was going on. I have never seen so much courage and dignity the staff and students were showing until the closing of our doors. We were truly one of the few schools that one so many awards this year and had great gains. I proved that SMALL schools DO work, but why should they pay attention. Many of the people closing the schools are business people I understand that, but how many really have taught or have sat more than 2 minutes in a school to watch the outcome and the progress of any particular school. Our students have become a fatality with the board. They are now just a statistic of students who can succeed, but are shot down even though they work hard, study hard and are determined to go to high school and even college. I will truly miss the De La Cruz family. It was a large part of my life. I could honestly say that I would wake up in the morning and be excited to go to work. At night was anxious for the next day. Now, we have to find that excitement in another school and I doubt it will ever be the same. Good luck to all. I will truly miss you and will never forget how my life was changed due to the fact that so many CPS people didn't care about us or the students.

"LIVE WITH DIGNITY"

July 24, 2009 at 5:03 PM

By: We Don't Care What the LSC Thinks!

Where Is The Union?

Turns out the clown that tagged Kristine's computer over her head while she was typing was Amy Kotz of Gunsaulus. These tyrannical principals that the Board "can't" do anything about don't have even the most basic social skills and they're leading our children?

Michael Scott kept asking, ad nauseum, at the July Board meeting how the LSCs felt about the principals who are ruining teachers’ lives. What difference does it make? Even if the LSC wasn’t in the bag for the dictator principals and realized immediately that a mistake had been made, according to our brilliant political leaders in Chicago and Springfield unfit principals have free reign for four years.

These nimrods could run around the building quacking like ducks for four years and the whole state of Illinois could only stand around and wring their hands, because a couple of bored parents are megalomaniacs.

God, even third-world-country peasants can figure out that they have to find a way to finally retake their countries.

Marilyn Stewart has to plan a massive demonstration against dictatorial principals. The status quo of those whose salaries we pay needs to be disturbed.

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