Will it be a pink slip or another year of teaching for Chicago Public Schools teachers?
That question is on the minds of many area faculty after CPS’ proposal last month to close, consolidate or turn around 14 district schools.
Gwen Roby, a teacher at Gillespie Elementary on the South Side, has certainly pondered this question a time or two over the past few weeks. Since CPS put Gillespie on the turnaround list, Roby and the rest of the school’s teachers, administrators and staff will lose their jobs if the Chicago Board of Education accepts the district’s recommendation to overhaul the school and hand it over to a district operator.
Roby and the others will have their answer-pink slip or teach-when the board votes Feb. 24. According to CPS, the overhaul was recommended because Gillespie has struggled academically. But many close to the school say CPS officials are letting test scores dictate its decision, preventing it from seeing how far the school has come in such a short time.
“Gillespie is already turning around,” Roby said. “We’re on the verge of doing great things.”
Roby is a lead teacher for Gillespie’s Chicago Teachers Advancement Program, a federally-funded reform model for underachieving schools. At a hearing about the turnaround last week, several students said their classmates fought, heaved books out the window and even sometimes brought guns to school. While teachers and community members point to Principal Michelle Willis’ arrival in April 2007 as the main turning point for Gillespie, they regard the school’s adoption of the TAP program as a close second.
“The police used to be here constantly,” said Cynthia Varnado, a teacher at Gillespie for three years. “Dr. Willis was brought here to get the school under control.”
The violence has been clamped down and order has been restored, many at the school have said. They also credit TAP for giving the teachers a fresh approach. But now, only five months after Gillespie and fellow South Side school, Deneen Elementary, implemented the reform program, CPS is proposing to overhaul both schools.
Without new test scores to guide the district, Chicago Teachers Union President Marilyn Stewart said CPS is not giving the program a chance to be effective – rather, it’s pulling the plug and giving control to the Academy for Urban School Leadership.
“How could you possibly have AUSL turn around a school that is already in an approved program in partnership with the district and union to help struggling schools?” she said. “I think it is absolutely absurd.”
The U.S. Department of Education granted Chicago Public Schools $27.5 million in 2006 to implement TAP in 40 underachieving Chicago schools. Each year 10 schools start the program. With proper time, the program has been effective at schools across the country, said Kristan Van Hook, a vice president at the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, which operates TAP.
An independent study found that students at 78 percent of TAP schools nationwide gain the equivalent of a full year or more of achievement growth in a single school year.
Roby noted that the program’s success is twofold: it sharpens teachers’ professional skills and it provides cohesiveness across disciplines.
“One thing students do know is all my teachers are speaking the same language whether its math, social studies or science,” she said.
But a district spokesman maintained that Gillespie was placed on the turnaround list because it has for several years failed to meet the CPS Performance Policy benchmark. Schools that receive less than 33.3 percent of the points on the performance policy for two consecutive years are considered for closure or turnaround – Gillespie received 11.9 percent this year and 31 percent last year.
“The decision to recommend those schools for turnaround was not based on one year but many years,” said CPS spokesman Frank Shuftan. “It’s not as simple as saying you’re in the TAP program. We’ll see how that plays out.”
But those close to the school say the district is simply not looking past Gillespie’s slip in state test scores in 2009 after two years of growth. Willis said the drop off was the result of reshuffling teachers to different grade levels and now the problem has been addressed.
At the hearing last week, Ald. Freddrenna Lyle (6th), school staff and parents questioned whether district officials had even visited Gillespie before placing it on the turnaround list.
While Roby concurred, Shuftan said it was too difficult to determine whether any district officials had visited the school.