Latinos score upset victory after year of agitation

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Gale Community Academy scored a landmark victory this year—winning both temporary relief and a pledge of permanent relief for its long-lasting, severe overcrowding. But political turbulence, largely along racial lines, cast a cloud over this accomplishment.

Many African-American and Latino parents joined forces last summer to protest the school’s move to a split-shift schedule—since abandoned. However, divisions between leaders in these two communities culminated in a bitter campaign for Gale’s local school council, with Latinos scoring an upset victory. (Gale’s enrollment is roughly one-third Latino and two-thirds African American.)

The leadership style of longtime Gale Principal Edis Snyder was a key point of contention. No one disputes Snyder’s intelligence and drive. However, Virginia Avilés, a member of the winning Latino slate, says that while she and her colleagues respect Snyder, they do not feel that Snyder has much respect for them.

“She was my principal when I was in school,” says Avilés. “She’s a good principal. She has always been very strict, very strong with the education. But she has this thing that people have to do what she wants, the way she wants to do it. She’s a dictator. Being a principal, you have to be a people person.”

When the new LSC takes office in July, Avilés says, she imagines herself telling Snyder, “It doesn’t mean you’re out of here. If you’re willing to shape up, you’re not going anywhere.”

Snyder, who has two years left on her contract, declines to comment on the LSC elections.

MAR 21 Dispelling nasty rumors.

More than 100 Latino parents and about a dozen Gale teachers pack the Good News Church for what is billed as a clear-the-air session. The parents have invited the teachers in order to assure them that, contrary to rumors, the Latino candidates for the local school council are not anti-Semitic and do not want to run Jewish teachers out of Gale. And the teachers want to assure the parents that they hadn’t believe the rumors in the first place.

Ian Fingerman, an 8th-grade teacher at Gale, heard the tale of Latino anti-Semitism through Gale’s faculty grapevine; he’s not surprised, he says later, that it was bogus. “I’ve worked with Hispanic people all my life, and they’re the least anti-Semitic people in the world,” he says. “They’re too busy working and raising their families to be anti-Semitic. It was a rumor. It was a nasty rumor.”

Another teacher calls the rumor “a desperate move” by the administration to drive a wedge between teachers and parents as LSC elections approach. Latino parents have been vocal critics of Principal Edis Snyder.

When Good News Pastor Horacio Peralta-Marinkovic announces his intention to forward the attendance sheet from the meeting to School Board headquarters, teachers nervously object. They don’t want word getting back to Snyder that they came to the meeting.

In an interview later, Snyder says she heard about the rumors for the first time the day of the meeting, when she saw a flyer for it. About teachers’ fear that she would find out that they attended, she says, “It sounds like there’s a great deal of paranoia there.” What people do in their off-hours, she adds, is their own business.

At the end of the meeting, Pastor Horacio, as he is called, invites parents and community members to get identification (ID) cards issued by Good News Church. The cards will have each person’s name, address and photograph and will bear the church’s name. “In the last [LSC] election, the judges turned people back because they didn’t have picture IDs,” he explains.

Pastor Horacio says he has been making ID cards for community members since last fall—first for for homeless people to use when cashing public aid checks, and later for neighborhood youth to show police officers.

MAR 25 A reluctant activist decides to run.

Jerri Whitley watches the 6 o’clock news and hears Floyd Kalber remind parents that they have only a few days to register for local school council elections. Well, she thinks, if I’m going to do this, I guess I’d better do it now.

In the last few weeks, people have been calling her and urging her to run, but she has been reluctant. She tried activism last year and found it effective but bruising.

Last July, Gale switched to a split-shift schedule, and Whitley hit the roof. She drew up a petition against the new schedule and asked others to sign it. They did. A group of Latino parents led by Florentina León, with the help of Pastor Horacio, was doing the same thing, and Whitley joined forces with them. In late July, 30 to 40 percent of Gale parents, mainly Hispanics, kept their kids out of school and staged protests in front of it. In August, Whitley circulated a petition calling for the resignation of Principal Snyder.

To her disappointment, only a few African-American parents participated in the marches or came to meetings— although almost 20 percent kept kids out of school. To her surprise and dismay, many black parents were angry with her for working with the Latino parents, even though they had told her how much they hated the split shifts. Whitley also began to have her own doubts about her alliance: She wasn’t sure that the Latinos listened to her the way they listened to each other, and she came to disagree with them about tactics.

In August, when an end to split shifts was promised, Whitley decided to sit back and watch for a while. She hasn’t spoken with León or other former allies since then.

But she is still troubled by certain aspects of life at Gale. For instance, while the student body is overwhelmingly black and Latino, the faculty is mostly white. Gale sits just a few blocks from Chicago’s northern boundary, and many teachers commute from nearby suburbs. Whitley is full of praise for her children’s teachers, of every race, but she believes that children should have people they can identify with—and who can identify with them.

She resolves to run.

MAR 26 LSC chair recruits former critic.

LSC Chair Wayne Frazier calls Jerri Whitley today—he’s heard from a friend that she’s decided to run for the LSC—and says he wants her to join his slate of LSC candidates. Latinos, he says, are running a slate of their own. Last summer, Frazier had been a target of the protesters’ anger; as chair of the LSC, he was seen as the principal’s ally.

Whitley says she doesn’t understand why there has to be a black ticket and a Latino ticket—or why she should run on any slate. “Wayne, if we’re talking about trying to bring the school together,” she later recalls saying, “this is a sure way to split it up.”

However, Whitley reluctantly signs on with Frazier & Co.

APR 3 Candidates forum erupts.

About 40 parents and teachers squeeze into a third-floor classroom for Gale’s LSC candidate forum. Within 20 minutes, there’s plenty of breathing room because half the parents have stormed out.

The Latino parents object to the translator because he works for an organization, the Rogers Park Community Action Network, for which council chair Wayne Frazier serves as board chairman. “You’re not being fair,” Pastor Horacio Peralta-Marinkovic tells Frazier. “You have very close ties with this organization. I don’t trust you.”

Citing the School Board’s election guidebook, Frazier counters, “The local school council runs this election. You’re not coming in and taking over the LSC.”

The pastor threatens to walk out if the translator, Ramiro Chacon, is not replaced. Frazier stands firm. The Latino parents caucus in one corner of the room, while Frazier attempts to start the meeting.

“Quiet!” one black parent yells at the Latinos. “QUIET! It makes no sense for you to be in a corner over there, when we are all in here.”

Voices rise in both Spanish and English. Finally, Pastor Horacio walks out, followed by about 20 Latino parents.

“I was fair,” says Frazier, as the parents make a noisy exit. “They cannot come in here and take over the LSC. That’s the bottom line. I mean, we have a process. Whoever is leaving, will you please leave so I can conduct my meeting?” He turns to Chacon: “Can you translate that?”

Chacon translates Frazier’s request to the two or three Latinos remaining in the room. Then he takes a seat, where he remains, silently, for the rest of the meeting.

Later in an interview, Chacon says he was “totally innocent” of bias. He says the fact that Frazier chairs the organization that brought him is “a fluke,” but he concedes, “I suppose there is room for some mistrust.”

However, Chacon says that based on long experience as an activist, he doesn’t think the disruption was spontaneous. “I think they were going to find a way to walk out one way or another. That was organized—which was fairly well-done by the way. I loved it.”

After the walkout, Gale teacher Lazaro Altimarano is the first to speak. He’s not a candidate in the election, but he is an ally of the Latino parents’ group and a vocal critic of Gale’s administration. “We must fight together” for a voice in school affairs, he tells the African-American parents. It’s the Gale administration that should be the common target, he argues.

Frazier responds with a long, harsh speech about Latino parents. He blasts them not only for walking out of his meeting, but also for running so many candidates in the first place. “We [black parents] guaranteed them two parent positions by only running four African Americans. And this is the treatment we get. Now who’s being fair? … This is saying, ‘We want it all.’ ”

Jerri Whitley is angry that Florentina León and her allies have left the meeting, foreclosing a real discussion. “You ain’t going to get nothing solved, walking out of the room, storming out like this,” she says, addressing people who have already left.

Frazier wants to press forward with his agenda, but Paul Rosales, a teacher candidate, raises another complaint. Rosales says he couldn’t tell, from the notice for the forum, whether he was supposed to speak and that he couldn’t get a straight answer out of anyone all day. (Parents and community members do not vote for teacher representatives on LSCs.)

Some parents are peeved at Rosales and wonder aloud if he’s just another Latino trying to make trouble for Frazier. Rosales insists that he’s not. “I’m not angry at this gentleman,” he says. “I’m angry at how this whole process is working.” The parents accept his answer.

Finally, the meeting gets down to official business. A ballot order is chosen, by lottery, and each of the candidates who’s still there calmly makes a speech.

“This is my classroom,” says Dennis Gallagher, one of seven teacher candidates. “My children made these African symbols, which are up on the walls, and they’re there for a purpose. … Those are some symbols, concepts, ideas that I happen to think govern, should run, this classroom. I think that they apply to the whole school; they apply to the community. I believe in unity and patience and in humility, courage and those kinds of things.”

“All the things we’ve been denied,” a parent says softly.

“All the things we’ve been denied are all the things we need in the school to make this a very, very good school,” Gallagher says, picking up on the parent’s comment. “Thank you very much.”

The remaining parents applaud enthusiastically for Gallagher, as they do for Rosales, who speaks after him.

APR 7 A political Easter egg hunt.

Yesterday, Jerri Whitley made 500 Easter baskets for today’s Easter egg hunt across the street from Gale. It’s cold, but 450 children show up. The Jesse White Tumblers entertain. “The kids had a ball,” she says later.

Flyers for the event say it is being presented by “Your LSC candidates,” namely, the six African Americans who are running for parent and community seats. The flyer goes on to list the names of the local alderman, state representative, state senator and ward committeeman.

The implication is clear: local politicians have endorsed Frazier and his slate. Pastor Horacio angrily faxes a copy of the flyer to Project LEAP, the election watchdog group that runs LSC elections citywide.

Ald. Joe Moore explains later to LEAP: The Easter egg hunt is an annual event sponsored by a non-political parent group that Frazier heads. “Every year I sponsor it,” Moore tells Catalyst. “So when Wayne called, I said, ‘Sure you can use my name.’ It turned out to be a little more political than I had hoped. … Certainly, I didn’t want to get involved supporting one slate over the other.” He’s disappointed, he adds, that there isn’t a multiracial slate.

APR 8 At last, modular units open.

Finally, the modular classrooms installed on Gale’s playground in November are ready for habitation, and teachers begin moving in equipment and supplies. Some children will move in as well this month, but the classrooms won’t swing into full operation until May 5, when a number of bilingual classrooms return from intersession. (Gale is a year-round school, with roughly a fourth of its enrollment on intersession at any given time).

The move puts an end to “roving” at Gale; until now, overcrowding has forced about a fourth of students and teachers to change classrooms every month, occupying the space of whatever group is on intersession at the time.

APR 17 Election day, whew!

Accounts vary widely on what transpires at Gale on election day, but most agree on these things:

Many Latino voters use Good News IDs.

At first, the election judges are inclined to reject the IDs issued by Good News Church, even though School Board officials and Project LEAP previously had ruled they are acceptable. Pollwatchers and election monitors make several calls to central office and finally persuade the judges to accept the Good News IDs.

Election activity is hectic and tense, with disputes among election judges, pollwatchers, principal Snyder and monitors from Project LEAP.

Wayne Frazier challenges many Latino voters. In the afternoon, Project LEAP election monitor Pat Gladden slams her hand on the table and orders him to stop harassing voters. (Under LEAP’s agreement with the School Board, their monitors outrank all judges and pollwatchers at the polling place.)

When the votes are counted, all five Latino parent candidates are winners, with Florentina León taking the highest number of votes. Wayne Frazier is the sole African-American parent elected. Frazier ally Dennis Weekly and León colleague Milton Castiñeiras are elected community representatives. Dennis Gallagher gets the most faculty votes, followed by Roslyn Scott, a top Snyder aide who is Gale’s parent liaison.

And then there are disputed accusations.

Frazier and his supporters later accuse Pastor Horacio of driving Latinos from outside the neighborhood to Gale and handing them ID cards. Pastor Horacio denies both accusations. He explains that Latinos often carpool to and from work, which he says would account for people arriving in groups to vote. The pastor also says that at the request of some voters, he sorted through their ID cards to identify which could be used for voting.

APR 19 Losers turn to Ken McNeil.

Several Frazier supporters ask Ken McNeil, an attorney and Rogers Park resident who recently stepped down as executive director of the CityWide Coalition for School Reform, to represent them in a challenge to the election and its results. McNeil agrees, saying he hopes he can broker a settlement.

“These were two communities of color, and in my experience, the concerns of the Latino and African-American communities are not so far apart … once they start talking,” he explains later.

MAY 2 Victors talk unity.

Florentina León is in a very good mood as she waits outside Good News Church for a quorum of Gale’s bilingual committee. It’s 6:20 p.m., and only four parents have arrived for what was supposed to be a 6 p.m. meeting. “This is Latino punctuality,” she says, laughing.

“We’re going to be really successful when the community works together,” she tells a reporter. “We have to do a lot of work—blacks, whites, Latinos.” She intends to send LSC meeting invitations to every parent every month, and to knock on doors if people don’t show up. “We’ll tell people that the school is theirs, that it belongs to the parents and the kids, not to the principal or anyone else.”

MAY 6 Ken McNeil bows out.

Ken McNeil calls Virginia Avilés at work. She later maintains that he offered her a deal: Keep Frazier and Snyder in their current posts, and the election challenge would be dropped. Avilés says she was outraged and threatened to recount their conversation at the May 10 School Board hearing on the election challenge. (As it turns out, McNeil does not attend the hearing.)

McNeil says he left the case because it seemed like additional work would not be worth the additional cost to his clients. “These are regular working folks,” he notes.

Asked whether he agreed with Avilés’ account of their conversation, he says, “Not quite.” He says he doesn’t recall the particulars of what his clients were asking for but that he “may have mentioned the issues of chairmanship and principal retention. My perception was that those were issues that both sides would be interested in.”

Meanwhile, Jerri Whitley is thinking about bowing out herself. “I’m just disgusted,” she says. “I really want to walk away from Gale school altogether. It’s just too much politics up in there. And this is not necessary for a grammar school. No.” She is thinking about sending her kids elsewhere next year.

MAY 14 Meanwhile, on the education front.

At today’s LSC meeting, Frazier’s report is brief. He ends by inviting council members to an awards luncheon sponsored by the Rogers Park Community Action Network; he’s getting the award.

Principal Snyder’s report is extensive.

Gale will send some—she didn’t say how many many—8th-graders with low test scores to the summer bridge program launched by the School Reform Board. (See story on page 24.) Planning ahead, the school has sent notices to parents of 7th-graders who are at risk of having to attend next summer. In addition, the school plans to offer them remedial programs during intersessions. If the students’ scores improve, they’ll be able to graduate on time next year.

The school has applied to City Hall for summer jobs for students.

A social service agency is offering to partner with Gale to administer a new state anti-truancy program whose ultimate weapon is a reduction in welfare payments to parents of chronic truants. “Since last fall, citywide, 87 cases have been referred, but in only one case has this drastic measure been taken.” she reassures.

Gale has received its certificate of accreditation, which Snyder flashes before the council. “That’s good, that we’re legal,” she deadpans, putting the document in her file.

Under the School Board’s new enrollment policy, parents are to register their children by June 21 each year. “I think it will take at least five years before it reduces mobility to where we would like to see it. …” Snyder says. “I think, after some time, it will have a positive effect.” Gale’s mobility rate was 141 percent last year.

Snyder recommends that the school apply for a pilot program in “school-based budgeting,” which she says will allow Gale to buy its supplies and textbooks directly. The principal hopes that Pershing Road will pay the salary of a business manager for Gale, but even if it doesn’t, she says, the school would benefit from participating in the pilot. By getting in “on the ground floor,” Snyder explains, Gale will get special attention from the budget office.

Chiming in, Frazier says: “This new Board of Trustees—everything they do, they want to turn to gold. So they have to get behind this thing to make it work.”

In conclusion, Snyder lays out the biggest issue of the day. She proposes to use the school’s discretionary money to extend the school day by an hour, as Chief Executive Officer Paul Vallas has urged all schools to do. The cost for eight months: $290,000, which is roughly a fourth of the school’s state Chapter 1 and federal Title I funds combined. The expense is all the more imposing because Gale has lost about this amount of money from these two programs over the last two years. Both funds have been spread more thinly across the city, and the federal funds have been trimmed as well.

To pay for an extended day, Snyder offers two suggestions: (1) Scrap the current Title I program, which features special, smaller classes and pull-out programs for struggling students. (Snyder cites research showing that such programs generally have not been effective.) (2) Eliminate some of the school’s “quasi-administrative” positions. She names parent liaison and intersession manager as examples. Because of the cuts in discretionary funds, Gale has run few intersession programs this year.

Teachers who don’t teach students are a bone of contention at many schools, including Gale, where critics refer to them derisively as “hallwalkers.” Out of some 65 teachers, five don’t teach any classes.

Ian Fingerman may be living proof that there is life after so-called hallwalking. For years, Fingerman’s job title at Gale was Teacher-Facilitator; among his responsibilities were managing the school’s supply budget and passing out the goods, from computer wiring to chalk. Then, last August, Paul Vallas deleted that job title citywide, and Snyder reassigned Fingerman.

Fingerman didn’t like his new assignment—teaching a small class of 8th-graders who were not making it in other rooms. This was the kind of assignment he’d had 30 years ago, and it felt like a big step backwards.

Now, though, Fingerman speaks with pride about his students, about how much confidence they’ve gained, how much their test scores have gone up, how every one of them is graduating from Gale and going to high school next year. These students had been considered “discipline problems,” and now Fingerman says that other teachers often tell him how well-behaved his class is. “It worked well,” he says. “I think the kids and I developed a rapport.”

“A couple of weeks ago, I sat the kids down, and I said, ‘When this thing first started, I wasn’t too happy about it, and I know you weren’t too happy about it. And now, look at everything you’ve learned.’ “

MAY 31 Back to the election.

Board investigators have interviewed election judges, and the results have been inconclusive, reports Office of Investigations attorney Joyce Price. The judges aren’t all telling the same stories.

The next step: go back and find out whether the people who voted in Gale’s election live within the school’s boundaries or have children in the school. To verify the addresses voters gave, board investigators will consult school records, voter registration records and telephone directories. If they can’t find people that way, they will go knock on people’s doors, says Price.

Parent Jerri Whitley, having decided to stick around, has been observing goings-on at school. “In the past few weeks, I’ve been there very regularly,” she says. “I’m there to watch.”

Meanwhile, Good News Church plans to ask its congregation whether the church should sponsor “some type of forum … where African-American and Latino parents can come together and talk about where we go from here,” says Karen Avery-Mosby, co-pastor.

“It does sadden me that the collaboration or unity that was beginning last summer seems to have collapsed,” says Avery-Mosby, who did not take an active role in the LSC campaign. “The real issue is an issue of power, and I think that once again—I don’t know who—but attention has been successfully diverted from the potential of parents to have real power. Again, the issue is not an issue of whether everything that happened in the election is right or wrong, but how does the election help further our advocacy for the children in the neighborhood?”

Contributing: interns Jennifer Randall and Jason Grotto