Community Members, Including Former Chicago Bull, Unite To Save School From ‘Turnaround’

Kari Lydersen

Dvorak Technology Academy parent Antwainetta Hunter and her son say the elementary school, which is in danger of being taken over by a private nonprofit, is like a family. (Kari Lydersen)

At 2:50 pm on March 21, as Car­rene Bev­er­ly-Bass remem­bers it pre­cise­ly, her world changed.

That’s when she was told by admin­is­tra­tors that Dvo­rak Tech­nol­o­gy Acad­e­my on Chicago’s West Side, where she has taught for 21 years, was tar­get­ed to become a turn­around school.” This would mean all of Dvorak’s teach­ers and staff would lose their jobs next fall, when the ele­men­tary school would be tak­en over by a pri­vate non­prof­it orga­ni­za­tion: the Acad­e­my for Urban School Lead­er­ship (AUSL), which already runs 29 Chica­go pub­lic schools attend­ed by 17,000 students.

Along with North Lawn­dale’s Dvo­rak, the Chica­go Board of Edu­ca­tion is plan­ning to des­ig­nate two oth­er ele­men­tary schools as turn­arounds”: McNair Ele­men­tary on the West Side and Gre­sham Ele­men­tary on the South Side are also on the chop­ping block. In some cas­es, some employ­ees are retained dur­ing turn­arounds, but the dis­trict has already announced that the plan this time is to remove all staff from the three ele­men­tary schools.

They ambushed us,” Bass says, tears trick­ling down her face. It was the most dehu­man­iz­ing expe­ri­ence I’ve ever had in my life.”

All three schools host­ed hear­ings on April 2 in front of Chica­go Pub­lic Schools (CPS) and AUSL offi­cials, who were tasked with report­ing back to the school board. After anoth­er hear­ing next week at the school board’s down­town cen­tral office, the board will vote on the turn­around pro­pos­als on April 23.

On Wednes­day night, sev­er­al hun­dred dis­traught and furi­ous par­ents, stu­dents, elect­ed offi­cials and teach­ers — includ­ing Bass — gath­ered in Dvorak’s audi­to­ri­um to give their tes­ti­mo­ny unan­i­mous­ly oppos­ing the proposal.

All I ever want­ed to do was teach,” Bass, who cur­rent­ly teach­es fourth grade at Dvo­rak, tells In These Times after mak­ing her impas­sioned remarks to the crowd. To treat us that way when we just want to teach, it’s so, so disrespectful.”

AUSL and CPS offi­cials start­ed the meet­ing at Dvo­rak with a brief intro­duc­tion about the turn­around process and AUSL. There was a recita­tion of sta­tis­tics show­ing Dvorak’s poor per­for­mance on the Illi­nois Stan­dard Achieve­ment Test (ISAT), where stu­dents scored far below state and dis­trict aver­ages. Nine­ty-eight per­cent of Dvo­rak stu­dents are Black, and near­ly all qual­i­fy for reduced-price lunch — an indi­ca­tion of poverty. 

Pamela Creed, prin­ci­pal of AUSL’s Fuller School of Excel­lence on the South Side, explained dur­ing the intro­duc­tion that the orga­ni­za­tion devel­ops a pos­i­tive cul­ture” in its schools and sets rig­or­ous goals” for stu­dents. We do cel­e­brate stu­dent achieve­ment,” she said. For exam­ple, she con­tin­ued, We have col­lege readi­ness cel­e­bra­tions for stu­dents who met their col­lege readi­ness tar­gets — they have piz­za with their principal.”

AUSL’s pre­sen­ta­tion appeared to be cut short by boos and heck­ling. Then, one after anoth­er, locals took the floor to lam­bast the turn­around plan. They described the tight sense of com­mu­ni­ty that exists at Dvo­rak, where mul­ti­ple gen­er­a­tions of North Lawn­dale fam­i­lies have sent their kids. Sev­er­al adult speak­ers point­ed out their for­mer grade-school teach­ers and prin­ci­pal in the crowd. They described the way Dvo­rak stu­dents — many of whom are home­less, have spe­cial needs or face oth­er chal­lenges — have fam­i­ly-like bonds with teach­ers, secu­ri­ty guards, lunch ladies and oth­er staff who’ve been there for years.

Var­i­ous speak­ers did acknowl­edge Dvorak’s poor test scores. But, they said, the school has been improv­ing. Many peo­ple pro­fessed faith and hope in Prin­ci­pal Cheryl White, who has only been in her posi­tion for a lit­tle more than a year.

And while many point­ed out that AUSL schools often don’t per­form bet­ter than Chica­go neigh­bor­hood schools on stan­dard­ized tests, they also remind­ed offi­cials that scores don’t tell the whole sto­ry about a school. We need to start telling our stu­dents they are more than just a test score,” said Toni Minter, a teacher at anoth­er CPS school. This school is worth sav­ing; these jobs are worth saving.”

Numer­ous speak­ers charged that the Dvo­rak turn­around plan is part of a larg­er agen­da: to dis­place poor Black fam­i­lies from gen­tri­fy­ing neigh­bor­hoods. Res­i­dents often feel the same way about pri­vate­ly run char­ter schools replac­ing long­stand­ing pub­lic schools in their areas: They think it is a way to uproot the exist­ing com­mu­ni­ty and open a school that is more attrac­tive to high­er-income res­i­dents. (Turn­around schools are not char­ter schools, but crit­ics fre­quent­ly view them in the same vein.)

This is a land grab,” said Valerie Leonard, a mem­ber of the Lawn­dale Alliance, who referred to the plan as the AUSL hos­tile takeover.” This is about real estate.”

Locals not­ed their community’s prox­im­i­ty to down­town and said that peo­ple have already been forced out by ris­ing prop­er­ty val­ues. Sev­er­al speak­ers, includ­ing Minter, said they or peo­ple they know have been priced out of the neigh­bor­hood but con­tin­ue send­ing their kids to Dvo­rak because they love the school.

This is big­ger than us, they want this land,” Bass tells In These Times. It’s about the fact that you can see down­town from here. It’s about the red X’s on the build­ings” that the city uses to denote homes slat­ed for demo­li­tion. It’s like we’re the vic­tims of some­thing we didn’t do.”

Mar­qui­ette Criswell had two kids grad­u­ate from Dvo­rak and has fam­i­ly roots in North Lawn­dale going back more than 60 years. She, too, sees the turn­around pro­pos­al as a strug­gle over the future of the neigh­bor­hood. They are try­ing to take our homes, they are try­ing to take our schools, they are try­ing to take our jobs,” she tes­ti­fied. All in the name of gentrification.”

Though stu­dents cur­rent­ly enrolled would con­tin­ue to attend after the turn­around,” res­i­dents expressed wor­ry that prob­lem stu­dents might be pres­sured to leave or that new stu­dents with dif­fi­cult cir­cum­stances would have trou­ble gain­ing admission. 

Donielle Law­son, whom many refer to as the Jail Teacher” from her stint edu­cat­ing inmates in the Cook Coun­ty Jail, said in her tes­ti­mo­ny that she worked in an AUSL school—Dodge Renais­sance Acad­e­my on the West Side — for about six months. She quit, tak­ing an $18,000 pay cut, because she said offi­cials were reject­ing stu­dents with poor dis­ci­pline or atten­dance records.

My con­cern is that our stu­dents who have chal­lenges and issues will be turned away — only to end up on the streets,” added Ronald Hay­wood, for­mer­ly a mem­ber of the Dvo­rak Local School Coun­cil and a vol­un­teer and bas­ket­ball coach at the school. We have a phe­nom­e­nal prin­ci­pal in Ms. Wright. We have phe­nom­e­nal par­ents, we have phe­nom­e­nal teach­ers … What we ask for now are resources and sup­port. I ask once again we have resources so our stu­dents can remain in a school that is sup­port­ive and famil­iar to them. They say it takes a vil­lage to raise a child — Dvo­rak is that village.”

Though the con­cept of turn­around schools in the city began more than a decade ago under Chicago’s sweep­ing school reform plan, crit­ics see its con­tin­u­a­tion as part of the larg­er efforts of May­or Rahm Emanuel and his appoint­ed school board to pri­va­tize many aspects of pub­lic edu­ca­tion and reduce the pow­er of the Chica­go Teach­ers Union. Emanuel’s first two years in office includ­ed the sev­en-day his­toric strike by the union and the largest round of school clos­ings in U.S. his­to­ry. Short­ly after tak­ing office, Emanuel also announced he want­ed to dou­ble the num­ber of schools run by AUSL. He chose a for­mer AUSL exec­u­tive, Tim Caw­ley, to serve as Chief Admin­is­tra­tive Offi­cer for Chica­go Pub­lic Schools.

What this is real­ly all about, to be clear — turn­arounds are anoth­er ver­sion of school clos­ings,” tes­ti­fied Pauline Lip­man, a pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Illi­nois at Chica­go, to loud cheers. The school his­to­ry, cul­ture and staff, the school com­mu­ni­ty are wiped out.”

She not­ed that the schools AUSL has tak­en over are dis­pro­por­tion­ate­ly in African-Amer­i­can neigh­bor­hoods, and that African-Amer­i­can teach­ers com­prised a dis­pro­por­tion­ate num­ber of those laid off.

Local 24th ward alder­man Michael Chan­dler, State Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Arthur Turn­er and Ray­mond Gye, direc­tor of con­stituent ser­vices for U.S. Con­gress­man Dan­ny K. Davis, also spoke out in oppo­si­tion to the turn­around plan.

Turn­er said he was only told about the turn­around plan the day before it was announced. I felt very dis­re­spect­ed by that,” he said to the audi­ence. The rela­tion­ship between the com­mu­ni­ty and the teach­ers is very impor­tant. Try­ing to rebuild the com­mu­ni­ty, 16th street, the West Side of Chica­go, we need… the teach­ers sit­ting here. … We can do great things here at Dvo­rak. I’m here in sup­port of the fam­i­ly mem­bers and union mem­bers today.”

When Mick­ey John­son stepped up to tes­ti­fy, the micro­phone was sev­er­al feet too low for him. The for­mer Chica­go Bulls play­er, on the team from 1974 to 1979, is now a com­mu­ni­ty activist in North Lawn­dale, where he grew up. He helps out with the Dvo­rak bas­ket­ball pro­gram. Don’t believe the hype,” he told the crowd, charg­ing that the turn­around is real­ly a way to break the teach­ers union. 

When you take away what a child knows, that’s trau­mat­ic,” John­son tells In These Times after the hear­ing’s con­clu­sion. I’m all for change for the bet­ter. But this school has been build­ing. We need to keep build­ing on what they already have instead of start­ing over.”

Kari Lyder­sen is a Chica­go-based reporter, author and jour­nal­ism instruc­tor, lead­ing the Social Jus­tice & Inves­tiga­tive spe­cial­iza­tion in the grad­u­ate pro­gram at North­west­ern Uni­ver­si­ty. She is the author of May­or 1%: Rahm Emanuel and the Rise of Chicago’s 99%.
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