7 principals in 3 tumultuous years

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Principal Vergia Haynes

photo by Jack Bridges

Principal Vergia Haynes

Sojourner Truth Elementary School in Cabrini-Green is on its seventh principal in three years. The local school council blames central office for the turnover. Teachers blame them both. “We’ve been left out to dry,” says one. “That’s the general consensus.” Without skilled leadership at the school, tensions between factions escalated, slowing school progress.

In the view of Charles Payne, a Duke University professor who has studied Chicago schools, urban schools are cauldrons that need expert tending.

“What you’re doing in the city schools is taking people—principals, teachers, parents and students—with all sorts of class and race differences, putting them in a place with very few resources and asking them to do an extremely difficult job,” he says “Naturally their anger has to come out someplace, and it comes out at one another.” That certainly happened at Truth.

Initially, the anger at Truth resided with a group of teachers—largely but not entirely white—who felt that the principal, an African American, played favorites to their detriment. When the School Board removed that principal, pending an investigation into financial mismanagement, the teachers and community activists who supported her were outraged.

From there, it was a run-away train. The School Board sent temporary leaders. The local school council made a selection it quickly came to regret.

The School Board rescued the council by removing that principal, but his replacement wound up being more controversial. He, too, left the school, which is now led by yet another interim principal.

All this played against a background of pervasive fear, distrust and verbal crossfire that no one made a serious attempt to resolve.

In late February, Chief Executive Officer Arne Duncan told Catalyst that if the infighting at Truth continued, he would “look at doing something very different” with the school. Asked for specifics, Duncan replied, “You figure it out.” Duncan has closed other troubled schools and reopened them with new leadership.

He added that the situation at Truth demonstrates why Chicago needs to raise the standards for becoming a principal.

Decade-long leader removed

Principal turnover at Truth, a pre-K to 3rd-grade school on probation, began in 2001.

Pernecie Pugh, whom supporters call a tough but charismatic leader, had led the school for just over a decade. The school’s first local school council hired her instead of retaining Truth’s longtime principal.

Over the years, Pugh built strong community ties and was not afraid to visit parents in the gang-infested Cabrini high-rises. “She acted like [she was] one of us,” says Catina Ross, a parent who serves on Truth’s LSC.

But some teachers say Pugh disparaged faculty who were not among her favorites, particularly white teachers. Former Truth teacher Beth Signore, who was assigned to Truth through the Teachers for Chicago program, recalls her introduction to Pugh.

“She said, ‘You won’t stay because our white teachers don’t do well here.'”

In the late 1990s, Truth had one of the highest teacher turnover rates in the city, according to a Catalyst analysis. Twenty teachers left in two years, at least some due to a lack of support from the principal, says 3rd-grade teacher Bess Bourtzos. “She basically listened to a couple of teachers, and that was it.”

But the real turmoil began early in 2001, when the School Board whisked Pugh out of Truth and began an investigation into allegations that she had misappropriated school funds. Parent Yolanda Scott says that some people in the neighborhood believed the allegations and supported her removal. A teacher recalls, “We jumped in the air cheering.”

But others rose in protest. A residents’ council in Cabrini-Green passed a resolution in her favor. The LSC organized a community meeting on her behalf, and hundreds of parents and neighbors petitioned local politicians and the board for her return, according to Wanda Hopkins, a consultant from Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE) and a former chair of Truth’s LSC.

CPS Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas relented and returned Pugh to Truth that spring; the interim principal assigned in her absence remained to help out. Shortly after Arne Duncan became CEO in June 2001, the CPS law department completed its investigation and suspended Pugh without pay pending her dismissal hearing.

That action rekindled the protests. In mid-September, about 20 parents barricaded Truth’s front doors, urging staff not to enter. “My child cannot get an education without Pugh here,” insisted one angry parent, according to a teacher who witnessed the scene. The teacher says some protesters even used Crazy Glue on school locks. The police soon dispersed the group, the teacher says, but the parents’ resentment lingered.

Three women who took Pugh’s removal particularly hard had grown up in Cabrini and maintained close ties to the neighborhood. Gloria Crite returned to teach at Truth in 1972 and eventually would serve on its local school council. Linda Rule, who was one of Crite’s students, joined her 20 years later. Hopkins, who had moved to the Far West Side, kept her children at Truth, and she stayed on to serve as the LSC’s consultant. “They respect me because I’m not an outsider,” she explains. “I lived what they lived and understand what they need.”

Rule always suspected that her colleagues at Truth looked down on her because of her Cabrini roots. Although she had maintained cordial relationships with them, she says that with Pugh gone, she suddenly felt vulnerable. “Once a shield is moved, the lion can attack its prey,” she explains. “If you were harboring any ill feelings against me, now it [was] open season.” She says that she and her three children, who attended Truth, became victims of harassment and abuse. Eventually, she would transfer the youngest to a different school.

During the turmoil, a number of parents would make repeated child abuse allegations against teachers and principals, further heightening tensions. By all accounts, none of the accusations was substantiated.

Temporary principals Nos. 1, 2, 3

Over the next two school years, Truth would run through three temporary principals. Pugh had been removed by the board, and under board rules, the LSC could not install a permanent replacement until Pugh’s contract had expired.

The first temporary, Doris Barnes, a retired principal of nearby Schiller Elementary, filled in during the year when Pugh was removed and briefly reinstated.

Barnes was known in the community and well-respected at Truth. However, she opted not to stay. The second temporary, Hellen DeBerry, was a trouble-shooter for central office who arrived to open Truth for the 2001-02 school year and stayed only weeks. She quickly drew fire from some Pugh supporters.

Hopkins says she asked CEO Arne Duncan to remove DeBerry because she “didn’t know how to work with parents.” DeBerry says her assignment was only short-term and that she doesn’t remember Hopkins.

The third temporary principal, Joseph Washington, was on assignment from the Office of Accountability.

Teachers and council members alike say they found him congenial but not terribly active in pursuing improvements. “He was a good guy,” one teacher recalls. “He was there filling a spot.” Washington did not return Catalyst phone calls.

In March 2002, Pernecie Pugh officially resigned from the principalship at Truth rather than endure a dismissal hearing. She died shortly after. With a contract no longer in force, the board permitted the LSC to select a new contract principal. The board offered to let Washington remain if the council wanted to forgo principal selection, Hopkins says. “But we wanted our own principal.”

‘Permanent’ principal lasts a year

Hopkins recommended Willie Stigall, an assistant principal at King High School and a fellow congregant at the same West Side church. Stigall impressed the council with his commitment to raising test scores while working closely with the LSC, Crite recalls. “He was very adamant about it. He appeared sincere.”

But his relationship with the council quickly soured.

Stigall had to contend with two openly polarized factions in the school, each with one teacher representative on the council. Crite, the technology coordinator, counted among her supporters some veteran classroom teachers and much of the support staff. Second-grade teacher Katy Ahlgren was backed by many of the new teachers who arrived in the late 1990s, as well as by some veterans.

As some of Crite’s veteran supporters were leaving for retirement or other positions, the younger staff, many of whom say they felt intimidated under Pugh, were becoming more outspoken.

Student testing became a point of conflict. Hopkins and Crite wanted weekly tests so that the council could monitor student progress. Ahlgren’s supporters felt a weekly testing schedule wouldn’t align with the length of their textbook units. “If you’re testing them all the time, when are you teaching?” she asks.

Stigall did not put a weekly testing program in place, infuriating Hopkins. “He was not strong enough to make the teachers do [it],” she says. However, Stigall says he agreed with Ahlgren, whom he felt spoke for the majority of teachers.

As the school year wore on, Stigall worked less closely with the council, which sided with Hopkins and Crite. “At the end, he just got quiet and kept to himself,” says LSC Chair Latina Knight. “Maybe he didn’t feel like he could trust anybody.”

Teachers describe Stigall’s management style as hands-off and easy-going. For one, he didn’t visit classrooms to see whether teachers were following the district’s new reading initiative, says reading specialist Hawa Jones. As a result, some teachers followed the training enthusiastically, while others did what they had always done.

Stigall says he didn’t want to dictate to teachers and risk alienating them. “In a year, it’s hard to change people,” he says. “It takes time.”

That spring, Truth’s test scores plummeted from 22 percent to 10 percent at or above national norms. While teachers agree that Stigall was not a strong instructional leader, many blame the decline on the high number of students retained in 3rd grade the previous year, a citywide phenomenon. As a school that only goes up through 3rd grade, Truth is judged solely by its 3rd-grade scores.

Hopkins says the dismal test scores validated her position on Stigall with School Board officials, to whom she had been complaining all year. “They said, ‘You all brought him in.’ I said, ‘You’re going to take him out.'”

In an extreme move, the School Board removed a contract principal after a single year on the job, sending Stigall to a desk job. “It’s easier for them to remove the principal than to deal with Hopkins,” Stigall remarks.

Teachers, parents split over interim No. 4

With three years left on Stigall’s contract, Truth again could not hire a contract principal. Instead, central office would send them yet another interim.

Last summer, CPS Chief Instruction Officer Domingo Trujillo invited Hopkins to meet with him and two other district officials to select Truth’s next interim principal. Asked why Hopkins was brought in, Trujillo says that the board sometimes seeks input from LSC representatives in selecting an interim, and that Hopkins was “very active in the school and is an advisor to the council.”

Although Hopkins says she preferred another candidate, the group settled on Arnold Bickham, an assistant principal at Copernicus Elementary. Like many district-appointed interim principals, Bickham had attended LAUNCH, the district’s selective leadership training program.

Arriving at the end of August, Bickham dove into his new job with gusto. He quickly hired an education consultant to help teachers organize the curriculum.

He and the consultant also checked to see that teachers were following the reading initiative, according to Hawa Jones.

“He kept everyone on their toes,” a teacher agrees. “Things started looking hopeful. People realized we were not dealing with an idiot this time.”

He clamped down on student discipline, too, suspending more students than before for fighting and other disruptive behavior, all sides report. The crack-down thrilled most teachers but infuriated parents, including those on the council.

“Why were you suspending these little kids who are trying to get an education?” asks LSC Chair Knight. Bickham also stepped into a dispute between Rule and another teacher whom she had repeatedly accused of harassing her and her daughter—this was the second teacher whom Rule had accused of abusing her children since Pugh’s departure. Rule says Bickham moved her to a nearby child parent center.

In mid-October, Knight found in her school mailbox a thick envelope with no return address. The envelope contained a stack of newspaper articles and other documentation concerning Bickham’s criminal past.

She quickly alerted Hopkins and the rest of the council.

At about the same time, LSC parent representative Catina Ross says she heard a boy tell his mother that the principal had choked him.

The next day, October 22, the boy’s mother confronted Bickham, who called Officer Shirley Brown of the 18th District to take a report. Reading from the report she filed at the time, Brown says that the boy was sent to the principal’s office for hitting Knight’s daughter in the eye with an eraser. The boy tried to escape, she continues, but Bickham caught him by his jacket. Both Bickham and Knight, who was also present, stated that the boy tripped, according to Brown.

“The boy agreed that nothing happened after that,” says Brown, still reading. “Then his mom said, ‘I thought that you said that he choked you and threw you down.’ Then the boy changed his story around and said, ‘Yeah, he did.'”

Knight disputes that she even spoke with Brown, or that she witnessed the boy trip. After she heard that the boy was choked, she says she called Hopkins.

Principal’s criminal record emerges Shortly after the police report, Bickham went to a principal’s meeting and never returned. Teachers puzzled over his absence and the appearance of an unfamiliar district administrator in the school.

Days passed. At a Wednesday staff meeting, the unfamiliar administrator announced that Bickham was under investigation but did not elaborate. The next morning’s Chicago Tribune solved the mystery.

The Tribune reported that Arnold Bickham, a former medical doctor, was under investigation for misconduct involving “student discipline issues.” The article went on to report that in 1979, he was sentenced to two years in federal prison for defrauding the U.S. government of job training funds at his abortion clinic. In 1988, he lost his medical license after a judge found him guilty of forcing a young woman to leave his clinic while bleeding and in shock. She later died. In 1992, he was sentenced to 30 months probation for performing a pelvic examination without a medical license.

CEO Arne Duncan acknowledged that in applying for employment, Bickham had disclosed his past to Chicago Public Schools, according to the Tribune.

Under state law, individuals convicted of some non-violent crimes are not prohibited from working in schools; Bickham fell into that category. Now assigned to a desk job, Bickham declined to comment for this article.

Faye Terrell-Perkins, who recently became director of LAUNCH, says the training program did not hold Bickham’s past against him because he already was working in the district as an assistant principal and had fully disclosed his criminal record. “How much do you hold against [someone] for prior mistakes?” she adds.

Most classroom teachers at Truth say they don’t care about his past. “Everyone has a past, some more notorious than others,” one teacher remarks. “I thought he would help turn the place around.”

“We felt like the Board of Ed didn’t respect us enough as professionals to listen to us before they took our principal out,” says teacher Krista Adams, who left Truth for another Chicago school in January. “It made us feel like pieces of trash. People broke down and cried.”

Truth parents felt differently. Officer Brown hurried down to Truth the afternoon the Tribune article appeared. In the lobby, she heard outraged parents discussing it. “They felt, ‘How dare the board put in a man with a record like that.’ People felt the board didn’t care about them. ‘They’ll put anyone over in this community.'”

Following the article, Brown says that more angry parents called CPS complaining that Bickham had abused their children. The time between the alleged incidents and the reporting of them makes her doubt their veracity. “If this happened, why didn’t you file a police report?” she asks.

Bickham was cleared of the abuse allegations but was not returned to Truth. Trujillo says that the committee that hired Bickham for the principalship at Truth was unaware of his past.

“Everybody wants to pass the buck,” says Terrell-Perkins of LAUNCH, “but everybody should have known if it’s in his file.”

Principal No. 7 arrives, more teachers leaving

In selecting an interim to replace Bickham, the board consulted the LSC, which recommended Vergia Haynes, the assistant principal at Anderson Elementary and the Truth LSC’s second choice when it selected Stigall.

Teachers, many of whom still mourn the loss of Bickham, say they are fed up with the turnover. Each administrator demands new procedures, schedules and paperwork, they say. “It’s not about teaching anymore. It’s about learning what to do to cross your T’s and dot your I’s with the principals.”

Many blame Hopkins and Crite, whom they believe control the LSC, for chasing off principals. They see Haynes, who also grew up in Cabrini-Green, as their pawn.

Teachers are particularly angered by the letters of reprimand many found in their mailboxes the morning after Christmas break. Haynes wrote them up for a range of offenses, including turning lesson plans in a day late. The teachers wonder why she didn’t talk to them first. “I’ve seen teachers in tears [over] those letters,” says one.

Haynes says that Christmas break was the first chance she had to write the letters. “Teachers weren’t here for me to talk to them,” she says.

Teachers, meanwhile, report filing grievances with the teachers union for everything from the school’s faulty heating system to the principal allowing a custodian to lead a prayer at the Christmas party.

And the two factions are again at odds on instructional issues. For instance, the staff has identified 25 3rd-graders who could potentially reach grade level by May and get the school off probation.

Crite wants teachers to send them to her computer lab for extra help, but they are refusing.

Hopkins says it’s because they don’t like Crite. She insists that Ahlgren and three other teachers she knows only by sight are trying to run the school. “They make me so angry, I don’t want to know their names,” she says.

Crite and Hopkins accuse the white teachers of being prejudiced against black students, and are insisting on diversity training. White teachers say they are offended. “I had a job waiting for me in Glenview, but I like a challenge and I wanted to help,” says one. “I was hoping to be appreciated.”

Haynes reports that she has high hopes for Truth and has already seen improvement. Since she organized common planning time for teachers, the kindergarten and 1st grades are writing lesson plans together, she says.

Jones, the reading specialist, has observed teachers making progress with the district’s new reading strategies. But she knows of seven classroom teachers who are planning to look for work elsewhere next year, besides the two who moved on in January.

“If you’re going to put a principal in a school that’s already failing, it needs to be an experienced, strong principal,” says Adams, who departed for a West Side School that has a long-tenured leader. “I have always taught in the projects. It’s not the environment.

A school will function no matter where it is as long as the administration functions.”