About 30 people attended a community forum May 25 at Austin Town Hall to discuss the suspensions of 38 students of Austin Polytechnical Academy who protested the firings of seven teachers.

But despite the spirited three-hour dialogue between students, community members and administrators, the teachers were no closer to getting their jobs back than when the town hall meeting began.

Earlier this month, students staged sit-ins and walkouts to protest the firings of the teachers who previously earned “satisfactory” evaluations.

Fabby Williams, APA’s interim principal since joining the school last October, performed new evaluations and gave the teachers unsatisfactory results, leading to their termination. When the students returned to class after the protests, Williams handed down out-of-school suspensions ranging from two to 10 days. The suspensions were later rescinded, but some students complained they had already served them.

Student Cuauhtemoc Mendoza, who was among the few suspended students attending the forum, said the suspensions were not fair because they were not consistent with the school’s code of conduct.

The first walkout, Mendoza explained, wasn’t recorded by the administration as a violation, but the subsequent student sit-in was. Mendoza said the students should have received an in-school suspension for the sit-in, a punishment consistent with the code of conduct.

At the forum, moderated by Ayesha Jacoll, program manager of Youth Outreach Services, Williams took the criticisms in stride, and expressed contrition about the suspensions. He also emphasized his open-door policy for students and said he would be a greater presence at the school. Williams, however, remained steadfast in his decision to fire the teachers.

“If I didn’t make the changes based on my classroom observations, then I wasn’t doing my job,” he said.

Williams explained that he had a professional interest in making sure the under-performing school turned around, given that APA has been on academic probation since last fall.

For the current school year, only 2 percent of APA students met state standards for science. For reading and math, only 8 percent and 11 percent of students met state standards, respectively.

“If we continue to do the same things over and over again, we will get the same results. That’s not OK with me,” Williams said. “I’m still vested in the school. That’s why I make the tough decisions.”

Cheyenne Sims, a junior at the school, sharply rebuked Williams, who is leaving at year’s end to become a principal in south suburban Bolingbrook.

“You haven’t been here long enough to know what’s best for the students,” Sims said.

Ald. Jason C. Ervin (28th), who attended the forum, said he was “thoroughly embarrassed” by the lack of communication about the suspensions from the school administration to the community.

“These changes cannot occur in a vacuum,” Ervin said. “Suspending a bunch of kids because they don’t understand [why their teachers were fired] is not fair.”

Williams explained that he sent letters out to parents when the school was placed on probation last October. According to Williams, “absolutely zero” APA parents attended subsequent meetings concerning how to improve the school’s fortunes in light of the probation placement.

Dwanye Truss, a community advocate who attended the forum, called the out-of-school suspensions “morally wrong,” because Williams was set to leave Austin Polytech Academy so soon after he arrived.

“You hurt these kids, and you’re going to something else,” Truss said.  “If you weren’t going to commit to these kids, then you shouldn’t damage people’s professional careers, and you shouldn’t damage kids’ futures.”

Principal denies, then claims
knowledge of ‘hiring’ list

Of the seven teachers fired, five received “do not hire” designations, meaning they cannot work for Chicago Public Schools ever again. Such designations have been the source of considerable controversy, due to its perception as a bureaucratic and mysterious process, with no transparency and inconsistent implementation.

Williams said he was unaware of the policy during the forum.

“I do not know anything about the ‘do not hire’ list. I didn’t know there was a ‘do not hire’ list,” Williams said. “I didn’t put them there.”

When questioned further, Williams said the criteria for teacher termination were established jointly by the Chicago Teachers Union and the Chicago Board of Education. He reiterated that he didn’t know about the policy.

But in an interview after the forum, Williams said he was, in fact, aware of the list but did not put the teachers on it himself. Williams added he was unaware of who did, or who was responsible for doing so.

Akeisha Craven, chief area officer of Chicago Public School Area 19, said a new principal would be selected by June 30.