Darwin Elementary School

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In 1992, the local school council at Darwin Elementary School in Logan Square won an award from Ameritech for its efforts to improve the school. By the end of the year, council wars were raging, sending the school into a four-year tailspin. The school went through three principals in three years, and test scores faltered. When the battles ended in 1996, Darwin was on remediation and not far from probation.Today, the council speeds through its monthly meetings without fuss—often in less than an hour. The current principal has been in place for almost three years, test scores are climbing, and the school is off remediation.

Peace came the old-fashioned way: One side won—decisively. Looking back, the former combatants stand by the actions they took. “It was ugly,” says former teacher representative Art Ryden, who served through most of the council wars. “It was not the way school reform was meant to be. I’m very grateful that it’s in the past, I’m grateful that the school is run differently now, and I’m grateful to be separated from it.”

Most of the principal actors in Darwin’s saga entered the fray with reputations as effective, hard-working people of good will.

John Ayers, now president of the corporate group Leadership for Quality Education (LQE), was a community representative on the first LSC. His campaign flyer, headlined “Reform Will Work at Darwin!” featured what he calls a “politician-style” picture of himself, his wife and their daughter Maya, then 17 months old. “One of my campaign promises was that I would put my kid in Darwin school, assuming that we turned it around,” he recalls. At the time, Darwin’s test scores put it in the city’s bottom quarter.

Having lobbied for the 1988 state law that created local school councils and having worked with LQE for more than two years, Ayers already had a stake in reform.

During his two-year stint on the council, he gravitated toward other professionals, including the Rev. Bruce Ray, pastor of Kimball Avenue Evangelical Church and father of a Darwin student, and Audrey Donaldson, the newly-appointed principal, who had been chosen with input from a parent committee chaired by Ray. Ayers thought that with its new principal and new council, the school was headed in the right direction.

Carmen Feliciano wasn’t so sure. As a parent representative who had served on a subdistrict council and worked to get new schools built to relieve overcrowding, Feliciano was suspicious of what she calls Donaldson’s “buddy buddy” relationship with Ray; she felt Donaldson was trying to co-opt the council. Feliciano saw herself as a spokesperson for parents who didn’t know how to get what they needed; it was a mission fueled by memories of how her own mother had been treated by school staff. “They would just push her aside because she didn’t know English,” she recalls.

For the first couple of years, most tensions stayed beneath the surface, and Darwin started to work its way out of the school system’s bottom 100 elementary schools. Thencame a prolonged, emotional debate over a proposal to use year-round schooling to relieve Darwin’s overcrowding. From then on, conflict escalated.

In early 1992, Feliciano proposed that parents sit on a personnel committee; some teachers worried that she meant to evaluate—and weed through—current staffers. Feliciano said she only wanted parents to have input in the hiring process; she wondered why teachers would shut them out. The committee was eventually established.

A meeting in early May stretched to four hours as Feliciano and other members pressed Donaldson for more details on the next year’s budget, according to council minutes. Donaldson expressed annoyance that these questions were being raised just a week before the budget was due in central office. Feliciano thought Donaldson was resisting her attempts at scrutiny, which only fueled her suspicions that something wasn’t right.

By fall of 1992, meetings routinely lasted two to three hours; for several meetings running, the council debated whether a $6,000 purchase of academic calendars for students was—or should have been—explicitly authorized by the council.

In November and December, Darwin approached administrative meltdown. For several weeks, Donaldson stopped buying paper and supplies as the council tried to figure out how and when they wanted her to get LSC approval to spend school funds. Finally, on the advice of school board lawyers, Feliciano withdrew a motion to require the council’s OK for any expenditure over $500. Donaldson started buying supplies again, and to placate council members, she reported her expenditures in detail.

There were other issues, and some of them got personal. Donaldson hired Ray’s wife, Karen, as a special education teacher at Darwin over the objections of Feliciano and her allies, who complained that Rev. Ray—then the LSC chair—was pulling strings. (In 1996, the board prohibited schools from hiring close relatives of the school’s LSC members.) Karen Ray says she went through Darwin’s personnel committee just like everybody else. “I know the quality of work that I do,” she adds, “so I just kept on keeping on.”

The council was gridlocked for months. An assistant principal position went unfilled for more than nine months.

Large chunks of several multi-hour meetings were devoted to arguments over the minutes from previous meetings. A debate over one word—whether Feliciano “felt” or “knew” that school funds had been spent without council approval—stretched across two meetings. At the time, the council secretary produced extremely detailed minutes that summed up each council member’s contribution to every discussion, thus adding fodder to the running antagonisms. Later, he switched to a more general recording of what happened.

In May of 1993, Donaldson resigned to become principal of Gage Park High School. The Darwin council couldn’t muster enough votes to choose a successor, so the district superintendent assigned an interim principal in August.

Three months later, the council voted to look for someone else; in January 1994, Feliciano and her allies put together enough votes to offer the rest of Donaldson’s contract to Tony Dieppa, then an assistant principal at nearby Pablo Casals Elementary.

But Feliciano’s influence proved fleeting. By spring of 1994, three or four members who had been voting with her started to question her. One of the new dissenters was Ines Diaz, who had joined the council in late 1993. “I started to be concerned about how these people were doing things,” says Diaz. Only recently arrived from Puerto Rico, Diaz spoke little English when she joined the council, but she made a point of learning so she could get her concerns addressed. Diaz quickly gained support from other members, especially teachers who had bitterly opposed Feliciano.

Even so, chaos continued. In June of 1994, the council found that it had cost the school $48,000 in discretionary money because members could not agree on how the funds should be spent. Meetings continued to be marathons, and the new principal’s reports to the council became increasingly defensive.

By the end of 1994, the school was back among the city’s bottom 100 schools, and its bilingual program was out of compliance with state laws. Meanwhile, Principal Dieppa’s frustrations were mounting. “I would like to ask the chairperson why I, being the principal, never get to see the LSC agenda before the meetings,” he said at the December meeting, two months after Diaz had become chair. “It seems that nothing here at Darwin has changed.”

A month later, in a noisy, turbulent meeting that lasted all afternoon, a council majority voted not to offer Dieppa a new contract. Feliciano and parent representative Ena Martinez objected strongly to the move and were supported by an angry group of parents. Dieppa left within two months, and the district superintendent sent an administrator from his office, Graciela Shelley, to serve as acting principal. He also recommended to the district council that Darwin be considered for remediation, which would open the door to sanctions. A few months later, Darwin became one of the first Chicago schools put on remediation.

From then on, Feliciano and Martinez repeatedly raised emphatic questions about LSC decisions, especially the May 1995 offer of a four-year contract to Shelley, but they were outvoted on every issue.

The final step for the new council majority was ousting their challengers. Diaz zeroed in on the school’s Parent-Teacher Organization (PTO), repeatedly asking Feliciano, the group’s president, and Martinez, the group’s treasurer, to see its financial records. The two officers declined to submit their work to people they viewed as enemies.

By the fall of 1996, both sides were calling for outside help. Diaz asked the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office to investigate; to clear their names, Feliciano and Martinez begged the School Board for an audit. There was no official audit or investigation, but a board official who met with both sides did look over the PTO books and said that everything looked OK to him. The PTO account was closed, the organization was reconstituted, all accusations were officially withdrawn. Martinez transferred her son out of Darwin and left the council. Feliciano’s children had already graduated, and she continued serving as a community rep.

That was supposed to be the end of it, but it wasn’t. In the spring of 1996, when Diaz and Feliciano each organized a slate of candidates for the April LSC election, Diaz circulated flyers that asked, rhetorically, “WHERE IS THE PTO MONEY?” Feliciano and Martinez, running as community reps this time, were outraged at what they saw as a smear, but they had little recourse. They got clobbered at the polls. Feliciano and Martinez charged election-day irregularities; the board nearly ordered a new election, but finally officials let the results stand.

The council has been quiet ever since. Minutes from the last year and a half show no long meetings and no heated discussions, even though the council has had to deal with cuts of hundreds of thousands of dollars in discretionary money. Most of the people elected in the bitterly contested 1996 elections have left the council because their kids graduated; they’ve been quietly replaced. At a recent meeting, three members were brand new.

Meanwhile, test scores have risen to the point where the Reform Board took Darwin off remediation. The school also is reaching out to the wider community. Early last year, Darwin joined the Parent/Teacher Mentoring Program, which the Logan Square Neighborhood Association has run successfully at nearby schools. (For details, see the March installment of CATALYST’S School Reform: What Matters Most.) Parents in the program commit to 100 hours of help for a teacher; in return, they get a $600 stipend, leadership training and some counseling from teachers and other staff.

To principal Shelley, no news is good news. “I have the best local school council,” she says. “No one comes to the meetings anymore to watch. It’s not a circus anymore. Teachers used to come and just sit, eating snacks, watching and making fun of everybody.”

Ines Diaz stands proud. “Now, the LSC is doing business,” she says. “Before, people could only think about the fight between them.” Diaz left the council shortly after the 1996 elections, when her daughter graduated, but she occasionally attends meetings.

Diaz sees herself as a prime example of how council membership can pave the way to self-improvement. Encouraged by Darwin teachers to return to school, she’s now a junior at Northeastern Illinois University, studying education, and hopes to teach at Darwin when she graduates. Meanwhile, she works for the School Board, administering Darwin’s Parents As Teachers First program. “I’d like to encourage other parents: Don’t be afraid to be on an LSC,” she says. “You don’t have to speak English. All you have to do is want to help your children.”

Feliciano and Martinez are still active in the neighborhood, mostly with community policing. (Darwin withdrew from a police-sponsored parent patrol program after they left the council.) They remain convinced that they lost an important battle to a bunch of people who were mainly interested in jobs for themselves. “If I was interested in having a job, I could have sold my vote a long time ago,” says Feliciano, “but that’s not what I’m about.”

Feliciano is not without admirers. Vergene Lester, a teacher rep in the early 1990s, tips her hat to Feliciano and Martinez for the commitment they brought to the school and for the questions they raised. But she acknowledges that their style can rub people the wrong way. Lester is concerned about the current calm. “They’ve got a wonderful gig going here,” she says of the current administration. “There’s no one to question the budget.” Lester says she now lacks the energy and the allies to question it too aggressively herself.

Ayers believes that despite the turmoil, Darwin benefitted from local governance. “We got some terrific new teachers in there, and we cleaned up around the building,” he recalls. Most important, he says, was getting new blood in the administrator’s position. “There was a 75-year-old white guy who kept parents out of the school for 25 years,” he says. “You can imagine when he retired, we’d have another political hack in there, if not for school reform.”

Ayers never sent his kids to Darwin. “Five years in, I couldn’t put my kid in it, given that I had better options,” he says. “You don’t sacrifice your kids to politics.” His daughter went to Francis Parker, an elite private school, until the family moved to Oak Park.

Rev. Ray left the council in 1993, but Karen Ray still teaches at Darwin; they transferred their son to a magnet school last year. Karen thinks that though the school is still struggling, it is on the right track. “Darwin’s a really large school,” she notes. “Communication tends to be difficult to really keep on top of. And I told Mrs. Shelley, ‘I think we’ve had cumulative morale slump.’ Change upon change is kind of exhausting.”

Audrey Donaldson, who was greeted as a peacemaker at Gage Park, is philosophical. “I don’t think conflict is always negative,” she says. “I think conflict is sometimes very healthy. It certainly helps you to review certain perspectives, certain policies and procedures. And it may cause you to change—and change for the better.”