The Chicago Board of Education met April 23, to determine the fate of three elementary schools, including Austin's Ronald E. McNair, for a proposed turnaround. (DeJonique Garrison/MEDILL)

The Chicago Board of Education on Wednesday voted to turn over administrative and teaching duties at Austin’s McNair Elementary School and two other Chicago schools to a private education organization.

The school board announced its decision late Wednesday afternoon following its vote.

McNair, along with Dvorak Technology Academy in North Lawndale and Walter Q.Gresham Elementary School on the South Side, will be run by the Academy of Urban School Leadership. The takeover is effective July 1.

“There is a lot of passion surrounding this issue because people feel strongly about their schools…but, hard decisions have to be made,” said David Vitale, school board president. 

In a press release Wednesday from Chicago Public Schools, CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett maintained that the school district is “committed to ensuring that all of our students have access to a high-quality education and strong school leadership.”

Supporters of the three schools, however, are both skeptical of CPS and hurt by the board’s decision. This, they argue, was not the best option to help these failing schools, adding that AUSL is not bringing better qualifications, just more resources. 

They urged CPS to give the current faculty and staff more funding, but to no avail. 

“Let’s make the playing field equal; you can’t compare us to schools who get more resources — it’s not fair,” said Ollie Clemons, grandmother of students at Gresham, after the vote.

Gresham Principal Diedrus Brown added: “I’m a product of Chicago Public Schools considered a failure, but I have four college degrees. I know what this system can do.” 

But according to Vitale, these schools were selected for turnaround due to chronic low performance on standardized tests, as well as poor attendance and behavior records. McNair, 4820 W. Walton, has been on academic probation for 14 years. Gresham and Dvorak have been on academic probation for six and seven years, respectively.  

According to CPS Chief Officer of Networks Denise Little, turnarounds have demonstrated a “strategy to improve schools by setting a safe, supportive and academically-challenging environment.”

Under AUSL, these schools will receive three forms of funding: the same dollar amount per student that is budgeted for all CPS schools, plus an additional $420-per student for five years following the turnaround. They’ll also receive start-up funding to assist staff, instructional materials and renovations, such as new furniture. 

Once AUSL seizes control of the schools, current faculty and staff, including principals, will be replaced with workers chosen by the privately-run, charter school nonprofit. 

Dismissed employees will be able to reapply for positions or to fill other vacancies within the district. But, it is no guarantee that they will be hired. Statistics presented during the board meeting showed that 40 percent of teachers displaced after a turnaround are not rehired within CPS.

Byrd-Bennett said the district will continue to work with these school communities to ensure a smooth transition and to make sure their students remain “college-bound.”

 ‘Turnaround’ model debated

Prior to Wednesday’s vote, AUSL officials insisted that it is more than capable of turning the schools around.

Those opposed to a plan to fire current faculty and replace them with AUSL staff, however, cited the nonprofit’s high-expulsion rates and frequent teacher-turnover. The nonprofit also has unfair funding advantages, opponents say.

But AUSL officials are not apologizing, insisting that turnaround schools are focused on establishing “a new climate and culture of success.”

“At the end of the day it’s about results,” said spokesperson Deirdre Campbell, pointing to the organization’s growth in standardized test scores and high attendance rates, which outpace the rest of Chicago’s public schools.

Earlier this month, parents, teachers and students from Dvorak confronted Board of Education members at CPS’s downtown headquarters over the proposal. But according to CPS officials, student academic growth has not kept pace with district averages at those schools, despite the support provided by the district in recent years.

Still, turnaround critics say AUSL’s approach is not appropriate for the three neighborhood schools.

“The charter schools are expelling our children at 10 times the rate of the public school sector,” said Rainbow/PUSH’s Jonathan Jackson at the civil right’s organization’s weekly Saturday meeting April 20, at its South Side headquarters.

Opponents also say that the nonprofit’s teaching staff is “inexperienced and prone to high turnover.”

“The biggest difference is experience — most AUSL teachers are brand new,” said Debbie Pope, a retired Gage Park High School teacher and current official with the Chicago Teachers’ Union.

Pope added that AUSL schools also benefit from additional funding sources not available through CPS. She called that “totally unfair.”

“I think the neighborhood schools that they’re turning around could do so much with those resources,” Pope said. “These schools are resource-starved.”

Campbell, however, countered some of the critics’ complaints, saying that AUSL is “structured, not strict.”

“We think that it’s really important that all of the students understand what the expectations are,” she said

Concerning faculty inexperience at the nonprofit, Campbell said, “If you’re a highly-effective teacher, we think it’s great to have opportunities for growth.”

But Campbell conceding that, “If they’ve been through the process and they kind of know the ropes, they might move on.” Campbell added that teachers who are fired during a turnaround phase are still eligible to apply to AUSL teaching programs. “We have had both faculty and staff return, and many have been very pleased,” she said.

AUSL schools do, in fact, receive more funding. While the amount spent on each student is the same — according to Illinois State Board of Education — AUSL receives an additional $30,000 one-time administrative fee from CPS at the start of the turnaround. For the following five years, AUSL schools get an extra $420 per student.

That money, Campbell explained, is invested directly back into the school, covering the costs for teacher-coaches and staff support. After five years, AUSL fundraises privately for additional support programs.

AUSL also has the same advantage as most charter schools to plan their own budget, Campbell noted.

“Because we’re a nonprofit, it is my understanding that we decide how those dollars should be deployed,” she said, adding that parent-resistance to a turnaround program is not unusual.

“The parents that have spoken out loudest against the turnaround become our strongest advocates,” Campbell said.  

Additional coverage:

West Side school fights ‘turnaround’ proposal

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