Accountability council revs up, reconstitution under way

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After a year and a half of spinning its wheels, the Chicago Academic Accountability Council burst into the public spotlight in June with a controversial recommendation: The Reform Board should reconstitute eight high schools and two elementary schools.

“We got a slow start, but we eventually developed a work plan,” says Leon Jackson, the businessman who chairs the council.

In February, Paul Vallas, the school system’s chief executive officer, gave the council a shove, urging it to make recommendations on reconstitution and other controversial matters. He said he would welcome the “cover.”

Jackson says the council acted independently, though, looking at reading and math test scores over the past four years, student mobility and attendance rates. “We got absolutely no board help,” says Jackson. “We didn’t even look at probation manager reports. We didn’t think that was necessary.”

The Reform Board reconstituted seven of the high schools, sparing Marshall High because it has a relatively new principal; none of the schools had more than 7 percent of its students reading at or above grade level, according to test scores. The board did not reconstitute the elementary schools, McCorkle and Terrell, choosing instead to remove only the principals. Under reconstitution, all staff members must reapply for their jobs.

Jackie Gallagher, spokesperson for the Chicago Teachers Union, says that putting teachers on call “seems to be a punitive way to deal with teachers with 10 to 20 years of experience and superior teacher ratings.” By cycling through different schools as subs, these teachers can’t establish a track record that would help them get another job, she says.

At any given time during the regular school year, the number of reserve teachers ranges from as few as 25 to as many as 125, Gallagher says.

The 20-month limit was negotiated in the early 1990s, after the Chicago School Reform Act abolished the practice of assigning reserve teachers to vacancies by seniority; the act gave principals a free hand in filling vacancies. In 1995, the Republican-controlled General Assembly removed layoff procedures as a negotiable item—but only in Chicago schools—paving the way for the board’s recent cost-cutting move.

At an August 15 meeting, council members decided they had spent enough time talking among themselves and needed more public input, specifically on which educational policy issues they should commission studies. To that end, the council may soon hold a hearing, possibly at the end of October.

Studies already under consideration include the impact of probation and remediation, and the usefulness of the state’s Quality Assurance Process (previously Quality Review), where a team of educators visits a school and writes a report detailing its strengths and weaknesses. The council may also ask the Reform Board to explain how it evaluates bilingual programs and charter schools.

The council was created by the General Assembly in 1995 to provide some independence to school evaluation; members are appointed by the Reform Board.

“I know I’m going to get a job,” says math teacher James Lampkin, making the rounds at the School Board’s annual summer job fair. Lampkin is one of the 188 teachers who were rejected for retention at schools tapped for reconstitution—the 188 constitute 29 percent of teachers at the seven schools.

“I have an excellent rating, I have excellent classroom control, and I relate very well to kids,” says Lampkin, who has worked in Chicago schools for 22 years, the last 13 at Englewood.

He doesn’t disagree with the Reform Board’s efforts to improve schools, but he objects to the way decisions were made about staffing at reconstituted schools. “It was degrading and humiliating,” he says.

Lampkin says that DePaul University Education Dean Barbara Sizemore, the school’s external partner, interviewed him and that the newly assigned interim principal asked a few questions.

“Maybe I didn’t do good on it,” he says. “Maybe I didn’t say what they wanted me to say, but I’m a hell of a teacher.”

To help convince other principals of that, he has brought along data on his students’ increasing test scores.

Julia Griffin, a gym teacher dismissed from DuSable, says a team of seven or eight people who had never seen her teach were present at her interview, which lasted about l5 minutes.

“They asked me how I can relate reading to my field,” says the 25-year teaching veteran. “I told them they [the students] have games with rules and regulations. We make them read them.”

“How can they punish us for children who have been in school for eight years and don’t know how to read?” she asks. “This is crazy.”

A fresh start

Phil Hansen, newly appointed Chief Accountability Officer, says the interim principals decided whom to keep. “We gave them guidelines, then it was their call,” he says.

The guidelines provide for reviewing notes from the interviews and performance reports from the previous principals, as well as talking to probation managers, external partners and assistant principals.

“In all fairness, a new jumpstart in a new building may be just what some people need,” says Hansen.

As Catalyst went to press in late August, the board was still compiling a tally of teachers who had landed new jobs; at the time, the central computer system did not show Lampkin among them. A spokesperson noted that he could have been hired but that the paperwork hadn’t made it to central office.

In a move that triggered the first angry response from the Chicago Teachers Union, the Reform Board voted in July to cut in half the period of time that dismissed teachers will be paid while looking for new permanent jobs inside the system.

So-called reserve teachers, who also include teachers who lose their posts at a school because of declining enrollment or program changes, now will have 10 months instead of 20 months. Further, if a principal doesn’t hire them within 30 days, they must serve as day-to-day substitutes four days a week. The union argues that this combination won’t give some teachers enough time to relocate, particularly if they must obtain teaching credentials in a new field.