For the past month, the School of Social Justice has lived up to its namesake. After the removal of the principal and the elimination of three AP classes, students waged a sit-in, walked out and planned “days of silence” in which they refused to talk in class. Community meetings drew hundreds.
The month of uproar appears to have forced the district to acquiesce a bit, as two AP classes were reinstated. But students and activists still want an apology from CPS and the old principal brought back. They also are asking bigger questions about the future and structure of the school.
The Little Village/North Lawndale campus, which houses the School of Social Justice, is one of the only remaining places where small schools exist. Under the Chicago High School Redesign Initiative, CPS opened 23 small high schools between 2002 and 2007. At the time, experts advocated changing big neighborhood high schools into small schools so that students could get personal attention and feel connected.
In 2005, the Little Village/North Lawndale campus was built after community members waged a hunger strike. It was designed to accommodate three small schools.
Studies of small schools found that their students performed as well academically as similar students, but were more likely to graduate. Still, the modest improvements did not seem to justify them. Over the past few years, all of the campuses that had been split into small schools have been consolidated, except Little Village/North Lawndale.
The performance of the School of Social Justice has not been all that impressive, though in the past year test scores improved significantly.
Rico Gutstein, a UIC College of Education professor who was on the school’s design team, says community members are worried that the school will be turned around or consolidated.
Small schools always had advisory LSCs and that has proved to be a problem in the current controversy. Activists and students are now insisting on Social Justice’s LSC becoming a full-fledged council with binding principal hiring and firing power.
Though the decision was not unanimous, LSC members said they recommended in the Spring that Kathy Farr be given a contract. CPS officials refused to grant her one. Then, on Aug. 7, Farr said she was told she no longer had a job. CPS officials would not comment on Farr’s removal.
The removal came just five days before school was to start at Social Justice, a Track E school.
Marisa Velasquez, who used to work in an area office and is a former assistant principal at Roosevelt High School, showed up the next day. She soon eliminated two Advanced Placement English classes and an AP psychology class.
CPS officials said that there weren’t enough qualifying students to justify the classes.
But on Friday, Velasquez decided that she would combine the two AP English classes and reinstate the psychology class. Some of the teachers who had been laid off were also reinstated, according to community activists.
“The students, who were upper-classmen, had demonstrated how passionate they were for the class,” according to CPS communications.
Patricia Buenrostro, who was part of the hunger strike that helped create the school, says that is not enough. The council is now united in asking for Farr to return.
Buenrostro says council members have demanded a written explanation from Velasquez. “Victory, for us, is community accountability for our schools,” Buenrostro says. “That’s what we fought for 11 years ago.”
Cristian Gutierrez, a senior, complains the frequent principal turnover – the school is now on its fourth principal in 10 months – has caused students to feel that “we don’t know who to go to for our issues.”
“You can’t really go to the principal if they keep on changing,” he says.
Maria Herrera, whose daughter is a senior at the school, complained that the teacher layoffs (now rescinded) left substitutes teaching classes and that the level of coursework took a nosedive. “We pay taxes so that they can give us a good education,” she said in Spanish, “(But) they are receiving 8th-grade-level classes.”
Maria Centeno, the mother of a freshman and a senior, complained that her children have not had homework in weeks.
Chicago Teachers Union Staff Coordinator Jackson Potter says the union is in the process of filing ten grievances at the school, plus an unfair labor practices charge accusing CPS of retaliating against teachers for protected union activities.