At a traditional neighborhood school that is part of the Chicago Public Schools system, if parents have a grievance, they first go to the principal. If the parent remains unsatisfied, the next step would be taking the issue to the Area Instruction Office that oversees the school. If that fails to resolve the problem, the parent takes their complaint to the Board of Education downtown.
Charter schools are different. They operate with more autonomy than traditional schools, said Malon Edwards a CPS spokesman.
“Each and every [charter] school handles it differently. They discipline their children differently, they handle their grievances differently,” Edwards said.
On the West Side, how charter schools discipline employees, and how charter schools accept grievances from parents, has angered one parent.
The administration at KIPP Ascend Charter School and Pamela Gardner both agree that on April 17, 2007, an incident transpired between Amy Pouba, a KIPP teacher, and Gardner’s daughter, who was then enrolled in the sixth grade at the West Side middle school.
But other than the date, and the fact that there was physical contact between the teacher and Gardner’s daughter, there is little KIPP administrators and Gardner find in common about what exactly happened on April 17 and during the subsequent weeks.
As a charter school, KIPP (which stands “Knowledge Is Power Program) is allowed to operate with autonomy from Chicago Public Schools regulations, though Jim O’Connor, its principal, said the school does follow the CPS Uniform Discipline Code.
For parents with complaints, the school has a grievance procedure, but parents are still able to take their case to CPS administrators. But O’Connor said CPS has given him discretion to handle grievances saying, “CPS would like us to handle the vast majority of demands here at the school.”
Gardner said her daughter was resting her head on her desk during Pouba’s April 17 reading class because she had a migrane headache. The girl, according to Gardner, is a special needs student with a “hidden disability” that causes migraines, necessitating rest during the school day. She said staff at KIPP knew this, and allowed her daughter to place her head down.
Gardner said Pouba asked her daughter to sit up. She did not. Eventally, Gardner alleges Pouba shook her daughter, causing her to cry. She said students in the class told her Pouba shook her daughter. Gardner also has a letter allegedly written and signed by a student sitting next to her daughter on that April day. The letter reads, “Ms. Pouba got very angry. So, she grabbed [Gardner’s daughter] by the arms and shooked her.”
“It was not professional at all,” Gardner said. “Abuse took place there. It was mental, physical and emotional abuse.”
According to the school’s disciplinary log-copies of which were made available to Austin Weekly News by both Gardner and O’Connor-on April 23, Gardner met with O’Connor, Pouba and a dean about the incident. On April 26, O’Connor wrote in the log that he gave Gardner a copy of the school’s grievance procedure.
Pouba denied the charge-“I did not do what I was accused of doing,” she said-and has the support of O’Connor. She was not disciplined for the action, though O’Connor said “the situation could have been handled differently.”
The log shows the school’s internal communications about the incident.
On April 17, Pouba wrote, “[Gardner’s daughter] refused to sit up today in class. I reminded her and she continued to keep her head down.
“I then placed her elbows off the desk and she tried to put them on the desk. She yelled, ‘You know better than to touch me,'” the entry reads. “I told her to sit up. I pulled the desk away from her so that she could sit up.”
Pouba wrote that Gardner’s daughter tried to pull the desk back. Pouba then pulled the desk back again, and “told her I expected her to sit up. I told her I would put her desk back when she was sitting up.”
O’Connor said Pouba is a “rock-star teacher.”
“There’s absolutely no grounds for the accusations [Gardner is] making,” O’Connor said, noting that Gardner’s daughter’s story was inconsistent, and had changed over time.
Both O’Connor and Pouba also said any procedure about Gardner’s daughter resting her head due to migraines went into effect after April 17. O’Connor pointed to a Chicago Public Schools investigation that found the allegations to be unfounded.
In an Aug. 28 letter to Gardner, Josh Edelman, the executive in charge of CPS’s Office of New Schools, wrote “the conclusion of the investigation determined that the teacher did not grab [Gardner’s daughter] by the shoulder(s) and shake vigorously.” Nor did the physical contact between Pouba and Gardner’s daughter constitute corporal punishment, Edelman said.
O’Connor said the Department of Children and Family Service and the Chicago Police Department were also contacted about the incident, but declined to pursue their own investigations. Austin Weekly News could not reach the 11th District officer who interviewed Gardner nor DCFS by press time.
Despite the incident, Gardner continued to send her daughter to KIPP but started to attend classes with her.
The controversy did not end. About two weeks after the incident, on May 3, the school sponsored an orchestra concert. At the concert, Gardner started passing out a letter she had written about the April 17 incident. Staff asked her not to pass out the materials on school grounds. Gardner eventually stopped distributing the letter.
O’Connor and Gardner talked near the school’s west doors, according to the log. O’Connor said Gardner told him she wanted her daughter transferred from the school. Gardner disputes this account. “Why would I request a transfer for my daughter that night?” she said.
At some point outside, Pouba’s boyfriend demanded a copy of the letter and told Gardner, according to the school log, she should get a “damn good lawyer” if she was handing out disparaging letters. Gardner later wrote she took his remark as a threat.
The following day, May 4, Gardner went to school. The office manager handed her a transfer packet. Gardner said she wanted her daughter to stay at KIPP, but O’Connor said her daughter would have to re-enroll first.
Gardner said her daughter was “terminated” from the school.
“She was kicked out. She was given no due process, no restorative justice,” Gardner said. “She was literally kicked out as a sixth-grade student by the principal.”
O’Connor said he was merely doing what Gardner asked him to do. He said he later decided Gardner’s daughter could return to KIPP with “no questions asked.”
Gardner’s daughter is now attending seventh grade at a neighborhood school on the West Side.