Blaine Elementary’s principal Troy LaVierre made a grand entrance onto the education/political scene in Chicago this past weekend with his letter to the editor at the Sun-Times in which he gave voice to the frustration so many CPS principals seem to be feeling. Here’s part of what he wrote:
The administration’s interaction with principals is often insulting. During the debate over the longer school day, some principals questioned its merits. CPS officials were then dispatched to tell the principals their opinions didn’t matter. “You are Board employees,” a central office official told a room full of principals at a meeting, “and when you speak, your comments must be in line with the Board’s agenda.” He instructed us to have an “elevator speech” supporting the longer day ready at a moment’s notice. We were told that if Emanuel and the press walked into our schools, we’d better be prepared to list the benefits of his longer day. In a move that further humiliated principals, they were called on at random to give their elevator speeches at subsequent principal meetings.
“Principals, below the surface, are not happy. I hear it all the time. And I think he just sort of opened up the flood-gate,” says Catalyst Chicago’s Sarah Karp. In fact the discussion continued in the pages of Catalyst, as other principals expressed their agreement with LaVierre.
“He mentioned in his column that there were actually talking-points given to principals, and we know that the principals were sent a memo saying – don’t talk to the press, don’t even send out a letter to your children’s parents without getting it approved any Communications. The level of control is just unprecedented”.
And Karp says she sees the heavy-handed control first-hand. “When I go out to interview a principal, if I get in, they send out a communications person to sit next to me. Not every single time, but if it’s a story they’re a little more concerned about, they have someone sit next to me. That’s just such a waste of everyone’s time.”
With all the political strife surrounding Chicago schools, how is it that so few principals ever really speak out?
“That school, Blaine, is very affluent,” explains NPR National Desk reporter David Schaper. “The neighborhood is very affluent, I think most students come from backgrounds of relative privilege. And in that way, you had this Local School Council stand up and reject the essentially mandated budget that came from the central office last year. Now this is a school that has the capability of raising…additional funds themselves for extra positions and a lot of the extra things that a lot of people think are the necessities to build a strong education and curriculum.”
“Because he’s in a high-performing school, because his local school council supports him he can speak out, as many principals can’t,” Karp adds.
“What I think is interesting,” says Schaper, “is that in this narrative that was articulated on the (CNN) program Chicagoland that a lot of people think made the mayor look like a star, here are people from the other half, the upper echelon, who are chafing under this Mayor’s control. If there are two Chicagos, both of them aren’t real happy with the way things are going right now.”
And Karp adds an interesting footnote. Fenger High School, which was featured so prominently in the program, and which portrayed principal Liz Dozier as fighting so valiantly to hold onto her staff, has suffered huge losses since the Chicagoland crews packed up. “Fenger lost thirty staff members this year. That’s like a third of their staff just gone,” she tells us. “The big federal grant that brought in a lot of the counselors you saw on that show went away this year. And, they have no students. So you’re getting hit with that double-whammy.”
Charlie Meyerson, Head of News Strategy at Rivet Radio, asks “are we in Chicago losing the concept of the neighborhood school? With all the emphasis on selective enrollment, the historic integration that took kids out of one neighborhood to go to another neighborhood, is that a concept that’s lost in Chicago?”
“I think it’s gone, especially at the high school level,” Karp responds. Two thirds of high school students do not go to their neighborhood high school. The neighborhood high schools that do exist are almost alternative schools, in that they’re itty-bitty. You may have sixty kids in a class. If you have sixty kids in a freshman class, how many options can you offer those kids? These schools have just been drained.”
The Mayor and school board have indicated that school-based budgeting gives schools more control. But Schaper says it may not look that way to principals. “It really put shackles on the principals and LSCs and how that can allocate their money,” he explains, “because it’s a funding formula based on how many students you have, and if you have, say, a lot of veteran teachers – you may have higher-paid teachers, and so now you have to look at rearranging the staff, or increasing class sizes in order to keep certain teachers there.”
And, as we saw in Chicagoland‘s coverage of Fenger’s situation, with increased pressure from charters and dropping enrollments in general, many traditional neighborhood schools are forced into a brutal struggle for survival.
“What principals were telling me last year,” says Karp, “is that they felt really bad, because they were letting kids in from other neighborhoods knowing that it was going to kill the neighborhood school four blocks away. But because they had slightly better test scores, or maybe an art program, they could draw those kids and they could get heir budget up. So it really does pit the principals against principals and schools against schools in a way that I’m not sure is completely healthy.”
And the battle over funding for school operations and staff pensions rages on. A Sun-Times poll last week would seem to indicate that there might be support among the electorate for increased revenue, not just constant budget-cutting. But Meyerson doesn’t think it means the people are asking to be taxed more heavily. “No, I don’t think they are. But some people who’ve been polled say they are. And the other question is, are the politicians willing, regardless of what people say, when they have to approve a tax and they have to answer for it at election time?”