Juarez dodges intervention, becomes community academy

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Benito Juarez High School will have a new name this fall — community academy — but it will take more than that to repair its reputation after years of scandal and bitter rivalry between factions of teachers, parents and local school council members. During the last three years, a principal has been ousted due to allegations of grade tampering, the faculty has been rocked by turnovers and LSC meetings have become notorious for their shouting matches.

To end the turmoil at the Pilsen school, School Board President Gery Chico has called for administrators to consider reconstitution, educational crisis and, finally, intervention.

However, the system’s Academic Accountability Council objected to intervention for Juarez because its test scores are much higher than those at other schools recommended for that treatment. This year, it raised scores high enough to get off probation.

“Given that criteria, we could not justify” Juarez for intervention, says Leon Jackson, chairman of the accountability council.

Instead, the board decided to convert the school into a community academy, a creation of the board’s desegregation consent decree that is aimed at schools in racially isolated neighborhoods. (Enrollment at Juarez is 99 percent Hispanic). With community academy status, a school may redesign its curriculum and require teachers to reapply, with the principal deciding who has the credentials to fit the new curriculum.

Under intervention, the principal may dismiss a teacher following a year of close evaluation, regardless of credentials.

Juarez Interim Principal Leonard Dominguez, who replaced board-appointed Interim Principal Misael Alonso in March, says the Juarez faculty will see changes.

Dominguez says he has been taking notes and names during his five months at Juarez. He guesses that 10 percent to 15 percent of the staff, or about 12 to 16, teachers will be asked to leave.

“You have teachers and other staff members manipulating students, politicizing them for their own interests,” Dominguez says.

The same group of teachers have also influenced, and sometimes dominated, local school council members, he says.

Two new community members and two new teacher representatives were elected to the LSC last April, but the parent majority remains intact.

“It hasn’t been easy for us here,” says English teacher Richard Gelb, one of the new teacher reps. “Factions have been pulling us this way and that.”

Gelb says politics outside the classroom dominate too many people’s attention.

Among his colleagues, Gelb says some of the most effective and dedicated teachers in the classroom have other motives outside it. “They also have their own agendas,” he says

Juarez also faces a teacher crunch with at least six vacancies. Dominguez says at least two candidates for teaching jobs dropped out on hearing Juarez linked to intervention. Three other teachers transferred out.

Despite these conditions, Dominguez hopes the remaining and new staff will embrace the changes coming to Juarez and resist political motives.

“I think we’ll get people who can do better,” he says.

Chico agrees.

He notes, for example, that rival community groups, Pilsen Neighbors Community Council and United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), joined in support of serious reform at Juarez.

Chico says a new curriculum and staff changes will lead to LSC peace, even though some Juarez council members believe the board has already overstepped its bounds.

So far, the board has appointed two principals in the last two years – Alonso and Dominguez – blocked the appointment of the LSC’s choice last fall for principal, and now has imposed community academy status.

Chico insists the board has tried to work with the community: “We’re trying not to do this by fiat, if we can help it,” he says.

Leticia Guerrero, a current LSC community rep and former council president, scoffs at the notion.

“Gery Chico is just power hungry,” she contends. She says it has taken strong community pressure to keep Juarez from being turned into a traditional magnet school to draw higher-performing students from the increasingly gentrified Pilsen area.

Guerrero defends her council from critics who say it has been overrun by special interest and backroom politics.

“We’ve always voted unanimously,” she says, adding that the council has never failed to decide on issues vital to Juarez operations.

But the council deadlocked on a 5-5 vote this summer to endorse the community academy model, which irked Chico. Guerrero says some LSC members didn’t fully understand the plan.

The breach of the LSC’s authority to choose a principal, though, remains a sore point, Guerrero says. The council will start another principal search in August, but she admits the board has not said when an LSC-picked principal could take the reins.

As for Dominguez, Guererro says he has been cooperative and effective in his five months on the job.

While wheels begin to turn on transforming Juarez, some parents say they are still unsure what the new name will bring.

Parent Donna Ruiz says many parents opposed the community academy model at first because it seemed to be a way to make Juarez a magnet school, drawing students outside Pilsen.

“A lot of parents were afraid that poor-performing students will be left out,” says Ruiz, whose son, Javier, will be a Juarez 9th-grader this fall.

But after school officials held a second meeting with parents this summer, Ruiz says she is leaning towards accepting the model if it brings more resources and options to students.

Under the community academy model, Juarez will create mini-academies for subjects such as business and finance, fine arts and math and science, and receive additional funding for new teacher positions from the board.

Dominguez says Juarez will receive extra teaching positions, such as art teachers for the fine arts academy, and up to $10 million in other resources and services.

Natividad Hernandez, a parent of a 4th-grader at Orozco Academy, a Juarez feeder school, says strong changes are needed at Juarez. Hernandez, who works at UNO, says LSCs are political by nature and some are good at involving parents.

“But some of the [Juarez] LSC members are fighting to keep parents rights and forgetting what’s best for the children,” she says.

Hernandez will watch what happens at Juarez before deciding whether to send her son there in five years.

Gelb, who has taught at Juarez for 13 years, says students have improved their performance in spite of the leadership vacuum. Since he came to Juarez in 1987, Gelb has worked under five principals, three in the last four years.

A grade-changing scandal two years ago led to the ouster of Anna Garcia-Berlanga. Her replacement, Alonso, alienated enough teachers to cut short his tenure, Gelb says. The LSC last fall selected Carlos Collazo, currently an assistant principal at Steinmetz High School, to replace Alonso. The board blocked the move and installed Dominguez.

“It’s not fair to the kids to not have continuity of leadership,” says Gelb.

To help teachers improve performance and tap into high aspirations of Juarez students, the school and its new partner, University of Illinois-Chicago, will work together on strategies.

Education professor Steve Tozer, who has done work at Juarez for the last five years, says student surveys indicate an above-average interest in attending college and entering professions. However, too few students match their ambitions with consistent attention to academics.

Tozer believes teachers and parents should tap into students’ high aspirations to motivate them to perform better in school.

As a community academy, Juarez will shed the traditional tracking methods that relegate some students as non-college bound and, instead, have an intense academic focus for all students, Tozer says.

Tozer said the new curriculum will address student high goals and be more student focused that ever before.

Tozer also says extensive teacher development, on skills such as creating engaging lessons and adapting communication styles to the needs of Latino students, will go on all year at Juarez. Many Juarez teachers say they’ve been disappointed with previous staff development, he says.

Ruiz, a Juarez graduate and mother of three Juarez graduates, says both parents and students bear some responsibility for the school’s sub-par academic performance.

Whatever the school is named, she says, Juarez’s performance and reputation will improve only when parents support their children and students focus on their education. “It’s up to my son or daughter to make the name of the school.”