Jamay Nellum, 41, stood in the parking lot of St. Angela School, 1332 N. Massasoit Ave., during an overcast morning last Friday, Oct. 23. She had a small stack of petition papers pressed close to her bundled up body as she spoke passionately about Erica Shelton, 35, a wildly popular former enrollment specialist at the school.
“She’s the fabric of St. Angela. She’s the go-to lady. She handles the tuition. She does tutoring on her own time. A lot of single moms can’t pick up their kids on time. She takes the kids home, she picks them up,” Nellum said.
“He fired her for that.”
Nellum is among a throng of St. Angela parents and community members demanding that Shelton, who’s worked at the school for 10 years, be reinstated. Shelton was fired two weeks ago by the school’s principal, Kurt Wittenberg, for reasons she believes were unjustified.
“I never had a write-up under any principal I’ve been under except for [Wittenberg] and that write-up had nothing to do with why I got terminated,” Shelton said. “I even have a copy of my file. All I had were commendations all through my file the whole 10 years I’ve been here.”
Shelton, who has since hired an attorney and is pursuing legal action, said she couldn’t disclose the details of her termination, but noted that Wittenberg’s stated reason for letting her go “is something I’ve done for 10 years and I actually got an email from him telling me to do the same thing last year.”
Based on Nellum’s statement, Shelton’s firing may have something to do with transporting students to and from the school. When contacted for comment, Wittenberg said he couldn’t speak on the matter, since it involved personnel. But he also refused to respond to the barrage of non-personnel-related complaints that a crowd of about a half-dozen people voiced during Friday’s demonstration.
Several parents, in addition to Shelton, claimed that Wittenberg, who they said has been principal for about a year, has been a poor communicator and insensitive with parents and students, and has fostered an environment of intimidation among his non-unionized employees.
Shelton claims that, before her termination, Wittenberg had forced another teacher to quit and tried forcing her out by changing her salary and her hours arbitrarily.
Nellum said Wittenberg “suspended one kid for having a Popsicle and said it was a weapon” and that he questions parents about the cars they drive and why they can’t pay tuition. One time, Nellum recalled, he referred to a group of parents as “you people.”
“I called him on that the other day and two weeks later, I got fired,” said Shelton.
“We just want to bring attention to the way things are being handled,” Nellum said.
Aesha Beckworth, 34, is the mother of two students at the school. She said the only thing keeping her from pulling her kids from the school is Shelton.
“[Wittenberg] doesn’t supply real tutors for the kids. My daughter is in third grade and she’s in after care. The tutors get her work wrong and I have to correct it,” she said.
“The food is terrible. The kids don’t eat it. The school has bugs. I can go on. The school has completely changed since he’s been here. It’s gone downhill since he’s been here. I’m going to pull my kids and if I pull my kids and all the kids I recommended enroll here, because I trusted Ms. Shelton, I’m going to recommend that they leave, too.”
Patricia Jones, 24, said Wittenburg was unresponsive to her repeated requests for assistance in the financial aid process. She said she eventually took her problems to Shelton, who resolved them.
“I called Mr. Wittenberg and told him I hadn’t received my financial aid award letter and he said he’ll call me back. He never called me back. I was even seeing him every day while picking up my baby in the parking lot. He [eventually] said to shoot him an email, but I never got a reply. So, I asked Ms. Shelton and she was like, ‘Don’t worry, about it I’ll take care of it.'”
“We’re trying to get her job back,” said Tiffany Davis, the mother of a nine-year-old student. Davis said she was shocked to learn of Shelton’s termination since she’s such a vital part of the school community.
“She does a lot of things and goes way above and beyond, making sure kids are safe. We need people like her in this school. I don’t tolerate her being fired like that.”
In less than an hour, Nellum and several other parents had gathered a few dozen petition signatures, with virtually all of the parents they asked agreeing to sign on. Nellum said the petition papers have been circulating since last Wednesday among parents who have feelings similar to Beckworth’s.
“[Shelton] is the one who got the students in here,” said Angela Henley, 43. “I was hot when I heard she was fired. That’s a travesty. People are going to un-enroll.”
If the parents’ threats are real, they could present a problem for one of the handful of Catholic schools that remain on the West Side. In 2005, the school came close to shutting its doors before a major marketing campaign helped to double enrollment levels, according to a 2012 Chicago Tribune article.