Firings anger principals group, which asks, ‘Why these five?’

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Last year, the School Board shut three schools with low test scores, displacing teachers and drawing fire from the Chicago Teachers Union. In August, the board cracked its accountability whip once more, removing five principals from low-performing schools, this time provoking the principals association.

Ousting principals at under-achieving schools is nothing new. Under former Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas, the School Board removed about 40 principals for inadequate school performance over a six-year period beginning in 1995.

But years later, many of those same schools are still on probation or were among those closed last year by CEO Arne Duncan for low performance, observes Dave Peterson, who recently retired from the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association. “I don’t see removal as the answer. It’s a simplistic response to a complicated problem.”

The five probation schools that lost principals in August have a history of low test scores and generally perform below average on other indicators such as student attendance or dropout rates. They are Truth, Bethune, and Cather elementary schools and Gage Park and Austin high schools.

(Principals at two other elementary schools, Linda Ross-Hutchinson of Morgan and Pamela Strain of Ruggles, were also recently removed from their schools pending disciplinary charges unrelated to school performance.)

CPS spokesperson Peter Cunningham, says that the five low-performing schools have been on probation for years, and that the board has provided extra supports such as university partnerships and tutoring programs. “It’s not like we haven’t tried, and we’re kicking the principal out,” he says.

But Peterson observes that many other probation schools had even lower test scores and attendance rates and higher drop out rates but did not lose their principals. “Why these five?” he asks.

Two of the ousted principals—Will Stigall of Truth in Near North Side and Gregory Wiley of Cather in East Garfield Park—had fewer than two years tenure, Peterson adds. “If they failed, it’s because they weren’t adequately prepared or supported,” he insists.

Nancy Carter-Hill, the Area 7 Instructional Officer who oversees Cather, disagrees that the School Board dismissed new principals without adequately training them. Last year, for instance, new principals received workshops on everything from school budgets to leadership, she says. Carter-Hill says struggling principals are paired with more experienced colleagues for mentoring. She notes that Cather Principal Wiley got the same training as other new principals, “and they’re still in their schools.”

Firings may be challenged

Clarice Berry, the principals association’s newly elected president, reports that all the removals are under an attorney’s review and may be challenged. In dismissing principals, especially new ones, the board is leaping to the most serious consequence without taking intermediate steps, such as those teachers are entitled to, she says.

The other principals removed from probation schools were Learna Brewer-Baker of Austin High, Katherine Smith of Gage Park High, and Warren Franczyk of Bethune Elementary in East Garfield Park. All the dismissed principals have been reassigned to administrative jobs in the central or area offices for the remainder of their contracts.

Duncan explains that the board considered a range of factors, including test scores, test score gains, student attendance, dropout, probation history “and whether there was a sense that those situations had a possibility of turning around.”

To judge the likelihood of a turnaround, the board relied on recommendations from area instructional officers and their own informal observations, he explains. “I spend a fairly large amount of time talking to principals, talking to community members, talking to teachers,” he says, “Others do that as well.”

Principals were likely dismissed primarily for reasons other than achievement data. At Truth, Duncan says that “tension and animosity” had developed between parents and the first-year principal. “It was a situation that we felt was broken, and it didn’t need a band-aid, it needed a dramatic change,” he says.

LSC Chair Latina Knight says parents felt brushed off by Stigall, who appeared increasingly overwhelmed. “[It] seemed he lost interest in his job,” she says. “If he had to go, he had to go.”

At Bethune, the LSC had just renewed 18-year principal Warren Franczyk’s contract. However, some parents and LSC members found him autocratic, according to Derrick Harris, president of the newly created North Lawndale LSC Federation. Harris says he brought those concerns to the attention of Area Instructional Officer Rollie Jones. “We like to think we were able to provide some influence,” he says.

Parents United for Responsible Education had received complaints about the principals at Bethune, Truth and Austin, reports parent advocate Wanda Hopkins. But the group gets complaints about other schools as well and it’s not clear why these schools were singled out, she notes.

History of dismissals

By a number of accounts, the two high schools also had management problems.

At Gage Park, teachers had complained that Principal Katherine Smith pressured them to raise grades, sources say. (Duncan would only report “tension and animosity” between teachers and administrators.)

Austin High had security and discipline problems, reports Kymara Chase of DePaul University, the school’s former external partner. Also, the area instructional officer was based inside Austin last year, where such problems would have been easy to observe, she adds.

The board has dismissed principals from both schools in the past. In 1995, Austin Principal James Williams was replaced by high school principal Al Clark, who was yanked several months later when Arthur Slater, then an assistant principal, was installed. Test scores rose during Slater’s tenure, but he left in 2000. Learna Brewer-Baker was the board’s pick to replace him as interim; the LSC hired her a year later.

At Gage Park, the board removed Principal Frank Lacey in 1999, replacing him with Katherine Smith, a reading specialist who had helped raise test scores as an associate principal at DuSable High. Under Smith, Gage Park’s test scores remained flat. She served as interim principal for four years without a contract until the board removed her this summer.

Board names principals

Once the board removes a principal, it usually does not allow LSCs to hire a replacement as long as the school remains on probation, according to Philip Hansen, the board’s former chief accountability officer. Interim principals serve at the pleasure of the board and are easier to remove if the school fails to make progress, he adds.

The board has named Clementine Smith, former director of Harvey Academic Prep, a school for overage 8th-graders, as Austin’s interim principal. Wilfredo Ortiz, who lost his job as chief officer of high school programs in the recent central office reorganization, is interim principal at Gage Park.

With the exception of Ortiz, the board recruited interim principals from LAUNCH, a leadership training program it runs in partnership with the principals association and Northwestern University.

Other interim principals include: at Truth, Arnold Bickham, former assistant principal at Copernicus; at Cather, Hattie King, former assistant principal at Clark High; and at Bethune, Charlotte Stoxstell, former reading coordinator at Hirsch High.

Duncan says more principals may face dismissal next year when probation schools undergo a similar review. “Where we need to make some significant change, we’re going to do that,” he says.