Vanessa Dereef, who’s been a major force behind the ongoing efforts to improve Douglass Academy High School, has been fired as its principal effective July 7.

While the Chicago Public Schools district confirmed the firing, it did not give any reason as to why, simply indicating that Dr. Abdul Muhammad, formerly a principal at Nancy B. Jefferson Alternative School, will be taking over as interim principal.

Troy LaRaviere, president of the the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, said that he saw the firing as part of a pattern of CPS terminating black principals for seemingly no apparent reason. His organization is currently working on a more in-depth study to see just how far the pattern goes.

Dereef has been a major advocate for the ongoing efforts to convert Douglass High School into a performing arts focused school. She has also been working to build on the programs that already exist. On April 20, she talked to the FBI about enhancing the school’s forensics class. At the time, she said that the discussion went well.

Dereef also launched music and theater classes in partnership with the Symphony of Oak Park and River Forest, as well as local theaters in the Austin area. She had been trying to reach out to North Lawndale-based Cinespace Chicago Film Studios for possible collaborations.

Recently, Dereef had been working to attract more students to Douglass. If the number of incoming freshmen dips below 100, the school will close.

On April 19, the report card pick-up day, teachers and volunteers went out to several elementary schools, most of which are located outside Austin, setting up informational tables to let students know about Douglass and encourage students to apply. Dereef said that “over 50” students expressed interest.

The principal earned support from Ald. Chris Taliaferro (29th), whose ward includes Douglass, as well as Ald. Emma Mitts (37th). During his June 7 community meeting at Columbus Park Rectory, 543 N Waller Ave., Taliaferro asked his constituents for ideas on how they could help the school, and reiterated his support.

During her final message as principal that was sent out to her email list on July 5, Dereef gave no hints that anything was amiss, simply telling readers that promotional flyers were ready for pick-up

After Austin Weekly News contacted CPS, a spokesman, Michael Passman, sent out a short statement,

“Vanessa Dereef will not be returning to Douglass Academy for the 2017-18 school year,” it stated.

 “To ensure a smooth transition into the new school year, Dr. Abdul Muhammad took over [the week of July 10] as Douglass’s interim principal.”


According to Passman, Muhammed previously served as a principal at Jefferson Alternative School in Little Italy. According to its website, it teaches adolescents who serve time in Cook County Juvenile Justice system. Before that, he was an assistant principal at Percy L. Julian High School in the Washington Heights neighborhood.

LaRaviere said that Dereef didn’t contact his organization. He said that after looking into the matter, however, he saw it as part of a broader, troubling pattern.

 “Over the last decade, there have been numerous questionable removals of CPS principals who serve communities of color,” he said. “Black male and female principals in particular appear to have been systematically targeted. This might be explained by the fact that CPS is attempting to destabilize schools for increased privatization; schools that serve black students make for the easiest targets, and these schools are more likely to be led by black principals.”

LaRaviere cited the Aug. 14, 2015 removal of South Shore’s Powell Elementary Academy principal Derek Jordan, the July 2016 removal of Rogers Park’s Gale Elementary School principal Casandra Washington and a June 2017 incident in which Manierre Elementary School Principal Derrick Orr was “pushed out” over accusations that he violated the district residency rules as examples, LaRaviere said.

According to a March 30, 2017 WGN report, Washington subsequently sued CPS, alleging that “black, female principals are being systematically targeted and replaced with younger, cheaper leadership.”

LaRaviere noted that his organization was researching the issue to get more concrete proof that the trend exists.

“That claim is based on our own repeated experience of being contacted by principals who are facing removal,” he said. “However, there has been no systematic data collection to affirm or refute this understanding. Our association is pulling a group of affected principals together with a few attorneys and academics to begin to collect the necessary data around this issue and plot an appropriate course of action should this understanding be confirmed.”

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...