Hugs, kisses and dinner for new principal at Haugan

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At a special meeting on April 8, the Haugan Local School Council voted unanimously to offer Interim Principal Betty Johnson-Rojas a four-year contract. Members then gave her congratulatory hugs, kisses and a dinner invitation.

“She signed that [contract] in blood,” teased teacher representative Hattie Brumfield. Johnson-Rojas rejoined, “Don’t threaten me, now.” The council and its new principal then walked out of the building together, laughing and chatting. Johnson-Rojas has worked at Haugan since 1981, advancing from teacher to assistant principal to interim principal.

Haugan received 57 applications, which it whittled to Johnson-Rojas, a central office administrator and a teacher coordinator and a counselor from other schools. There would have been more applicants if not for “rumor on the street” that the interim was a shoo-in, says Paul Zeitler, assistant principal at Von Steuben High. He gave Haugan a pass, explaining, “There’s no sense wasting their time and my time.”

LSC Chair Jo Ann Miracle, a newcomer to principal selection, says her only complaint is that weeding through 57 resumes was “too long and boring.” Some applicants had not completed all the requirements, she says, adding, “We got a couple that didn’t even have Type 75 [administrative] certificates.”

The process began on March 17, when council members divvied up the applications and leafed through them, gathering first impressions. “We were looking for someone who could get along with parents, teachers and children alike, and work hand-in-hand with everyone,” says community representative Robert Falco.

Miracle says she also looked for applicants who had worked in an ethnically diverse school like Haugan, which is 61 percent Hispanic, 17 percent white, 16 percent Asian and 6 percent African American.

The council narrowed the batch to five finalists, four of whom were available. Two weeks later, it conducted the interviews using a set of 10 questions aimed mainly at detecting candidates’ ability to work cooperatively with others. “I didn’t like the attitude the majority of them had,” says Falco. “Some of them had far-fetched things in their minds”—meaning they had elaborate strategies for running the school without getting community input. As for the council’s final choice, Miracle says, “There was no debating.”

Johnson-Rojas has known most of the LSC members for years. Says Miracle: “I hug Betty every morning.” Parent member Juana Gomez is fond of her too. “I like people, when you need something, to sit down with you and talk to you and understand you,” she says. “And she does it.”

Old principal rejected

Relations between the Haugan LSC and the previous principal were contentious. In January, the council voted 4 to 2 not to renew the contract of Lucille Willgale, who had been principal since July 1994. Willgale soon left to work as a consultant in the board’s Department of Specialized Services. Looking back, she says the problem was “people who are resistant to change.”

Miracle sees it differently: “She didn’t know how to communicate with a lot of the teachers.”

Coming from the principalship of a small Catholic school, Willgale says she was used to getting things done without wrangling with a teachers union and an LSC. “I think maybe I moved too fast,” she acknowledges, but says, “There are some times you just have to be focused on some of the global activities of the school.”

Willgale notes that she hired nearly 40 new teachers—the faculty totals 75—and increased professional development opportunities for the staff. Attendance rates and overall test scores in reading and math rose, too, she notes.

Willgale says most of the teachers approved when she “bucked the union” by asking them to stay for an open house, and that during her tenure “nobody left because of morale.”

Communication problems

LSC members paint a different picture. Juana Gomez says Willgale “didn’t do anything for the school.” When she approached Willgale last year with a concern about an abused student, “She said, ‘No! Forget about it. That’s none of your business.'” Another parent member describes LSC meetings with Willgale as “long and very antagonistic.” And Johnson-Rojas says Willgale, who chose her as assistant principal, had an “inability to deal with the public, teachers, parents, students.” She says the majority disliked her. In contrast, Johnson-Rojas says, “I have an open-door policy.”

Steve DeBretto, a community representative, was one of the two members who voted to retain Willgale; he bowed out of the principal selection process that followed. “I thought she did her job,” he says, “and I thought she fulfilled her duties. … I think with a little more effort on her part to communicate, she could have eased over some of the tension.” He notes for example that Willgale provided the council with rudimentary budget information though members wanted more detail. “On the other hand,” he adds, “my argument was that we had a budget committee” that could have worked more closely with the principal.

Elizabeth Iehl-Tobar, the other Willgale supporter, says that as a brand-new parent member, she simply didn’t know enough about the principal to oppose her. “The way the school was running was OK with me,” she says. As for Willgale’s alleged communication problems, “I can’t prove that, because I wasn’t there.”

DeBretto, Iehl-Tobar and two other LSC members decided not to run in the April 8 elections, mainly because of fatigue and waning interest. The other six members ran again and were joined by two new parent members. The council is still short a parent and a community representative.

By picking an insider, Haugan joins a systemwide trend. A 1998 analysis of board personnel data by the Consortium on Chicago School Research shows that 56 percent of current principals were hired from inside those same schools.