Community group accuses Orr High of pushing out students

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In the month that Tyese Sims has been principal of Orr High, she has
dropped 44 students from the rolls, she acknowledges. But one community
group is accusing her of turning away as many as 150. In the month that Tyese Sims has been principal of Orr High, she has dropped 44 students from the rolls, she acknowledges. But one community group is accusing her of turning away as many as 150.

At a community meeting on Saturday, tensions over discipline issues at Orr High School erupted into shouting and drew the involvement of 27th Ward Ald. Walter Burnett, Jr. In addition to dropping students, the activists and students complained, the new administration is too strict, for example, suspending students for swearing.

Representatives from the school and the community group Blocks Together were set to meet again Monday. However, Blocks Together organizers are also demanding a meeting with Don Feinstein, executive director of the nonprofit that is leading the turn-around effort at the school, Academy for Urban School Leaders (AUSL).

Located in Humboldt Park, Orr is in the second year of the effort—a process in which most staff is replaced.

Blocks Together said they were leaked a list of 150 students whom security guards were supposedly told not to let through the door. Blocks Together youth organizer Ana Mercado said she thinks administrators are trimming the rolls to increase the school’s attendance figures.

But Sims said she dropped only 44 students who hadn’t been to school in a long time.

“I need to know exactly what number of students are in my building, not the number that are on the books,” Sims told the crowd on Saturday. “If the student comes back with the parent, if they meet with Dr. Bradley [the school’s director of student support services], they are re-enrolled. They’re not going to be able to go to work and miss 66 days and then expect the job to take them back.”

Some of the students were younger than age 17, says Cecile Carroll, Blocks Together co-director, and were dropped without the proper documentation. Under CPS policy, schools are required to complete a “Lost Child Report” for every student who is removed from enrollment because their whereabouts cannot be determined.

Several Orr staff members said Sims’ tough approach was the right one.

Before the meeting, Orr security guard Rosie Smith, who’s been at the school for nearly four decades, said she loves the newfound sense of order.

“To me, a lot of the [students] are getting the point,” she said. “They know there’s consequences, whatever you do.”

She said that administrators provide homework to students who have been suspended – and that many students are given in-school suspensions as an alternative.

Larry Potts, a Youth Guidance staff member who works as Orr’s community resource coordinator, told the group that he has “never seen Orr any better than it is right now.”

“A lot of the things [the administrators] do, have to be done. Orr is on the way to becoming the best school on the West Side,” he said.

Another key point of contention at the meeting was the automatic suspensions for profanity.

 

“If they hear you cursing, you automatically get suspended,” said Orr student Edward Ward, 18. “It seems as if it’s a zero-tolerance policy. We’re not saying don’t discipline them, we’re saying, take the proper steps … talk with them.”

Student Brittany Cannon, 18, added: “It’s so much easier to say, ‘You’re cursing – two days,’ than to ask, ‘What’s wrong, why are you cursing?’”

The students also charged that staff swear with impunity.

Sims responded that she would look into the problems on the staff. “I cannot tolerate, and I will not tolerate, disrespect in my building,” she said. “If they brought that issue to me, I would reprimand my staff.”

But she added that she had clearly laid out her expectations for students.

“I told them there’s no cursing; I even gave them examples of disrespectful body language,” she said. “Other administrators told me, ‘We don’t send our best students to Orr, it’s a dumping ground.’ Well, it’s a new day. It has sent a wakeup message to our students, that it’s not acceptable.”

Marvin Bradley, director of student support services at the school, said that swearing is one of only three infractions that results in an automatic suspension. The other two are drug use and fighting.

“The suspension is going to happen, but there is [also] a conversation,” he said.

Saturday’s event also highlighted the challenges Orr has faced with tracking down truant students and implementing restorative justice, two promises that Blocks Together organizers say AUSL made before the turnaround.

“We have so many letters coming back [as being sent to the] wrong address, [and] wrong phone numbers,” Bradley said. “We want them in school, but we can’t afford [to track them down]. We don’t have the funding.”

He said that at one point earlier this year, 60 percent of the students on the school’s rolls were chronically absent.

But Carroll said administrators promised to hire truant officers and take extra steps to track down missing students.  “[Don Feinstein] committed to us that he’d exhaust all those resources for keeping a relationship with those parents,” she said, even when families’ phone numbers and addresses changed.

Implementing a peer jury program has been another challenge, said math teacher Cy Hendrickson. The program is currently up and running, but it doesn’t have the capacity to take all the cases that now come its way.

“Part of avoiding these suspensions is going to be restorative justice, and increasing the capacity of peer jury,” Hendrickson said. “[But] until this year, with the arrival of Dr. Bradley, we didn’t have an administrator at the school with an open mind.”

Repeated turnover among administrators at the school has also made it difficult to sustain the program, said another math teacher, Buck Johnson.

“There are two approaches for dealing with students that are struggling for dominance at this school,” Mercado said. She offered to help school staff access training in restorative justice strategies.

Meanwhile, Burnett struck a conciliatory tone. “We want to make suggestions, but we cannot tell the principal how to run the school,” he said. “We just lost the [previous] principal at Orr because they didn’t think he was doing well enough.”