Power struggle upsets delicate leadership balance

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As one of five poorly performing high schools placed on intervention, a strict accountability policy imposed by the board, South Shore was under the gun. Intervention school principals are required to do five evaluations of every faculty member. Borderline teachers get professional development and a chance to improve. But three bad evaluations are grounds for firing.

Thomas landed in hot water when his first round of teacher evaluations was judged as “too easy” on staffers.

That initial round of teacher evaluations “wasn’t setting teachers up to be fired, and some people weren’t happy about that,” says a source familiar with South Shore. “But it’s tricky. If people get bad evaluations right away and they think they’re going to be fired, they could try to sabotage the [reform] effort … to bring up scores.”

Intervention Officer JoAnn Roberts set up a meeting to announce Thomas’ replacements: Major Armstead, who had been South Shore’s principal last spring; and Ron Shields, now principal of Copernicus Elementary, who would step in as associate principal.

“No one ever called me to tell me I was being replaced,” said Thomas. “I heard about it from other people.”

But the announcement was never made. South Shore’s four external partners, who had hand-picked Thomas to lead the school, got wind of Roberts’ plans and took matters into their own hands. They marched downtown to meet with schools chief Paul Vallas.

“We were not there to tell Mr. Vallas how to do his job,” says Joe McCord, chairman of the Coalition for Improved Education in South Shore (CIESS), one of the school’s external partners. “It had more to do with treating a guy fairly. Given the magnitude of the job Dr. Thomas was facing, we felt it was premature [to replace him].”

Vallas gave Thomas a reprieve, then made a pledge to the external partners to help them find funds to implement their reform plan.

Thomas admits he was easy on teachers initially, but says he had a strategic reason. “If you walk into a building with 23 vacancies (one-third of the staff), you don’t run people away in the first round,” says Thomas. “You don’t know who you can get to replace them.

“The second round, I was tougher. I went in with the core curriculum specialists [from the four-person intervention team assigned to South Shore] and we identified the teachers we had concerns about and came up with strategies to help them improve.”

Seeing the writing on the wall, two South Shore teachers transferred out late last year after Thomas gave them bad second-round evaluations. Thomas says principals are so desperate for bodies, both teachers were hired at CPS high schools and no one called him for recommendations. A third teacher who had gotten a couple of negative evaluations retired in January.

Thomas wasn’t the only principal who was easy on teachers. At the other four intervention schools, only seven tenured teachers (two at Orr, two at Collins, three at Bowen) and two untenured teachers (one each at Collins and Orr) received negative evaluations in October, says Sandra Givens, director of the Department of Teacher Accountability.

DuSable principal Gloria Archbold didn’t give any negative evaluations in the first round, and says she’s not likely to fire any teachers this year.

Insiders speculate that Thomas’ troubles stem from a power struggle between South Shore’s external partners and the Office of Intervention. Thomas is the only intervention school principal who was selected by external partners before intervention was announced.

While Thomas spends most of his time evaluating staff this winter, the external partners are making plans for next year. CIESS, Black United Fund, National-Louis University and Leadership for Quality Education (LQE) have formed the South Shore Development Committee, a coalition of business and community leaders who are inviting residents to take part in creating a “new” South Shore High School.

By mid-January, teachers were already working on a plan to create two small schools within South Shore: one focused on the arts and the other on entrepreneurship. In fact, the small schools concept is what drew them to South Shore. “Intervention didn’t scare me,” says social studies teacher Leslie Grant, and transferred from Hyde Park High last fall. “It told me I needed to be here.”