‘Structured out’ of a job

October 7, 2013

Morgan Elementary teacher Leland Sanford was eligible to follow students to the welcoming school, Ryder. But he remained in limbo over the summer, waiting to see if enough Morgan students enrolled. He did not land a position at Ryder. [Photo by Marc Monaghan]
Morgan Elementary teacher Leland Sanford was eligible to follow students to the welcoming school, Ryder. But he remained in limbo over the summer, waiting to see if enough Morgan students enrolled. He did not land a position at Ryder. [Photo by Marc Monaghan]

Fifth-grade teacher Leland Sanford and Spanish teacher Christine Brown sat at his desk in the school’s library, surrounded by brown boxes and barren walls. They were not happy. 

It was the Monday of the last week of school, and Sanford and Brown had just received letters saying that they wouldn’t find out for a few weeks whether they would have  jobs next school year. Their school, Morgan Elementary, was one of 49 to be shuttered in June. Both teachers had superior or excellent ratings and were tenured, making them eligible to follow their students, per a provision in the new teachers’ contract.

The caveat, however, was that enough students from the closing school would have to enroll in the welcoming school to make their jobs necessary. 

Sanford feared the worst. “I consider it a layoff notice,” he said.

While Sanford’s students were in gym class, he snuck off for a quick meeting with Aaron Rucker, the principal of Ryder, the welcoming school.  When Sanford returned, he was even more agitated.  

Rucker told him that only about 30 students from Morgan had registered at Ryder—so few that the school might not need even one additional teacher. “You look into the future and you see nothing,” said Sanford. “There are no guarantees.”

Sanford decided to go into teaching more than 30 years ago because he loved children and saw it as a stable way to earn a living. He has two grown daughters and, at 50 years old, never thought he would be in this position. Half-joking, he says he will be applying for a job at Walmart. 

Ironically, Sanford is exactly the type of educator in shortest supply in CPS: a black male. The latest sweeping round of school closings have made even more of a dent in the already-dwindling supply of African-American teachers. 

Of the 1,022 teachers at closing schools, about half (51 percent) of the 507 who were laid off because they had poor ratings or did not have tenure were black, according to a Catalyst Chicago analysis of CPS data provided to the Chicago Teachers Union this summer. The remaining 515 teachers were eligible to follow their students to the designated welcoming school because they had superior or excellent ratings. 

Among eligible white teachers, 75 percent received transfers, compared to only about 67 percent of black teachers. 

Some of those teachers who did not get transfers in July eventually were hired within the district, but CPS has not yet shared information about those hires with the CTU. 

Black teachers were hit harder for one main reason: They tend to be concentrated in schools that enroll the largest numbers of black students, and 40 of the 48 schools that closed had primarily African-American student bodies. 

In the 2001-2002 school year, about half of CPS students and 40 percent of CPS teachers were black. That is no longer the case. Now, 40 percent of CPS students are black, compared to roughly 25 percent of teachers, according to the 2012 Illinois State Board of Education teacher service records.

Black principals have also lost ground. In 2011-2012, 46 percent of CPS’ principals were black, down from 55 percent 10 years ago. Black males, like Sanford, are even more of a rarity today. Only four percent of teachers and 12 percent of principals are black men.

That black teachers and principals increasingly find their profession precarious could have long- range repercussions. 

Stanford University education professor Thomas Dee says studies have shown that students tend to do better with teachers of the same race, but there has been little research to determine why. Dee suspects that it has to do with a confluence of factors, such as the fact that these teachers provide positive role models for students and that they may have fewer stereotypes about the children. 

“Another idea is that minority students have more anxiety in classes taught by white teachers and this might prevent them from doing as well,” he says.

Dee notes that figuring out why students do better with same-race teachers is important, especially as schools become more diverse. 

What’s more, principals and teachers who have just lived through the experience of having their schools closed say it is traumatic, and they will think twice before taking another job at a potentially vulnerable school. In the end, just the threat of closings makes schools in the toughest neighborhoods an even tougher sell to good teachers.

Neighborhoods also are hurt as other school workers join the ranks of the unemployed. 

Custodians, clerks and lunchroom workers, many of them also African American, have also lost their jobs as the district’s “footprint” has shrunk.

Lonnell Saffold, institutional division director for the Service Employees International Union, which represents CPS custodians and lunch room managers, says originally 75 to 100 of his members were laid off in the spring. Some were called back, and the union is waiting for a final count of those out of work.

But CPS cutbacks over time have taken a toll, Saffold says. “When you take good jobs, you devastate communities and you devastate families. These are the jobs that sustained our communities.”

The impacted communities are the neighborhoods that CPS students live in, a point that the CTU tried to make as they fought against closings. 

“Public sector workers make up a strong economic base for a community, so when reform like this occurs in many of the schools that have already been neglected for ages, they remove the adults that have been connected to these children, in some cases for generations,” Brandon Johnson, organizer for CTU and chair of the union’s black caucus, wrote in a January 2013 column in the Austin Weekly News. 

Thirty-three-year-old Demetrius Hobson says he never thought he would be disenchanted, especially so early in his career. 

On the last day at Henson Elementary on the West Side, where Hobson was principal, two little boys got into a fight at the awards assembly and one of their mothers was in the office, pissed off and waiting for Hobson.  Hobson told the mother he would investigate, which seemed a bit of a useless proposition considering it was the last day at a closing school.

Another girl in the office had been told to call a parent or guardian to come to the school to get her. She and another student got into an argument and the other girl threatened her. The tall, thin girl was crying so hard she could barely talk on the phone to tell her brother what happened.  

“No one knows where my mama is,” the girl told the clerk. “I’ll walk you home if I have to,” the clerk said. “I just don’t want any of this, not today.” 

Hobson and the office staff decide to send the girl back to class and then make sure she gets home safely. As he walked the girl up the stairs, Hobson tapped his watch. “Forty-five minutes,” he said.

Forty-five minutes before the last bell was to ring, and the school felt tense and emotional. As if to apologize, Hobson noted that some students don’t know how to deal with their sadness about the school being shut down. Some cry. Some fight. Some do both. “They are responding to the loss,” he said. 

Hobson became a principal just two years ago, after attending—at the expense of CPS—the Teach for America principal training program at Harvard University. When he was placed at Henson, a small school in the middle of impoverished North Lawndale, it was exactly where he wanted to be.

Hobson sees schools like Henson as beacons in a community that is struggling with poverty and the many problems that spring from it. Schools are one of the few places in such a community where children can see and interact with adults who have bachelor’s and master’s degrees, he points out.

Hobson, who grew up on the South Side and attended CPS schools, says providing a good education in communities like North Lawndale is a personal mission.

In the last weeks of the school year, when it became clear that Henson was going to close, Hobson went into overdrive. Among the tasks he set out to finish:  Get students enrolled in a new school, inventory everything in the school, and try to make sure learning wasn’t too disrupted by teachers running off to job interviews. 

Proudly, he said that even on the last day, he saw instruction taking place: A teacher was talking to her students about paraphrasing. 

Just before the bell rang for the last time, Hobson got on the loudspeaker and gave his farewell announcement. He ended it by telling the students “Education is liberation.”

But as he stood on the concrete steps in front of the school, hugging students as they came by, he looked tired. He said fatigue was starting to set in.  “This was my Plan A. I don’t have a plan B.” 

Hobson, like the other principals of closed schools, stayed on CPS’ payroll through October. Their job was to help close their schools and do other odd jobs. 

By summer’s end, Hobson was discouraged. He said he was not looking for another job in CPS. 

“Not,” Hobson repeated. “I have some serious concerns about the way the district is doing things and the lack of state funding.” 

A handful of other principals from closing schools are no longer seeking employment with CPS, he said, and added that he has heard about a few welcoming school principals who have “walked away.” According to CPS, eight welcoming school principals left their posts over the summer.

“I am in Chicago, but it is not clear to me what my next step is,” Hobson said. “I want to step back. I am trying to look at it as, who are the beneficiaries of this? We talk about equity. Who is this equitable to?”

Hobson said he is thinking about “engaging children in other ways” besides being a school principal, and perhaps running for office. 

Other principals of closed schools desperately want to find jobs in CPS.  

Bontemps Principal Allen Mosley started as a substitute teacher at the Englewood school and worked there for 24 years. He says he has put in resumes everywhere, both in CPS and in the suburbs, and is willing to take a non-principal position.

But at 52 years old and coming from a low-performing school, Mosley says he hasn’t gotten any callbacks. 

Jobs prospects look a little brighter for Morgan Principal Vikki Stokes. Two years ago, Stokes was the principal at Guggenheim, which closed. At Morgan, she tried her best to create a positive culture, and boasts about the many celebrations she hosted. 

“When you give people kudos, it helps to keep them focused,” Stokes says. “I also try to redirect people. I will ask them:  How are you getting along on meeting your goal? It over- shadowed the sadness. The good outweighed the bad.”

Stokes says she dreamed of making Morgan the Disney Magnet of the South Side. Disney, a popular North Side school, and Morgan were built around the same time and are similar in design.

Because Guggenheim closed, many on the Morgan staff thought Stokes was brought to their school to close it. Some staff members say Stokes told them the school wouldn’t be shuttered, so they didn’t fight hard to keep it open. 

Stokes, who has only been a principal for three years, says she is in the same boat as the teachers. Principals have no job protections. “I just want to unpack my pictures and my plants. It would be great to call a place home,” Stokes says. 

One of several issues surrounding the teacher’s strike last year was the union’s insistence that displaced teachers have some job protections. The union scored a big win when CPS leaders agreed that teachers could follow their students. 

But, as is often the case with situations involving CPS, people are taking a wait-and-see approach. However, so far, teachers who were transferred seem relieved and the principals who received them seem happy to have them. 

Lavizzo Principal Tracey Stelly said she needed two teachers.  The kindergarten teacher from Kohn transferred in and is now teaching 1st grade, with some of her former Kohn students in her class. “She got to loop with them,” Stelly says.

For 5th grade, Stelly got Phillip Clay, a tall black man whose youthful appearance belies his 15 years in the classroom. The other 5th-grade teacher is Cathy Clark, who is also Lavizzo’s assistant principal. Stelly says the two make a great pair. 

Clay says that he was saddened by Kohn’s closure. “I had put my heart and soul into it,” he says. “I had the highest ISAT scores there.”

Clay says he wasn’t too worried about finding a new position. He prides himself on being a hard worker and he says he figured something would come through. Also, his friends assured him that as a black man, he would be a hot commodity.  

But things did not work out so well for Leland Sanford. 

In the spring, few Morgan students said they intended to go to Ryder. But Sanford predicted that would change. “The parents think they have options, but they really don’t,” he said.  

Sanford was right and, over the summer, Ryder got a slow trickle of students. By the last week of summer, Ryder was projected to get 134 students from Morgan, and several Morgan teachers were brought on, according to Sanford. (The CPS communications office failed to arrange a follow-up interview with Rucker, the principal at Ryder.) 

But Sanford never got a call.

Out on the open market, Sanford has had no luck. He is convinced that it is because he is a veteran teacher who would command a high salary. He has filed a grievance with the union. 

CPS officials have said in the past that 60 percent of teachers laid off due to closings find other jobs in the system. But many things changed that might make a difference this year. 

Drastic budget cuts forced principals to lay off teachers and led to fewer job openings overall. And with student-based budgeting, principals have to stretch limited dollars to pay for enough teachers, making veterans less attractive financially. 

“I have my letters of recommendation, I have my awards, I have my test scores, but still it is not enough,” Sanford says. “One principal even told me that they have no money to hire people like me.” 

Another principal sent a rejection letter before he got home from the interview.

Without a job, as a displaced teacher, Sanford had two choices: Take five months of salary and exit the system or work in the substitute teacher pool for a year. With a mortgage and a work ethic, he decided he would take the latter choice.

For the first two weeks of school, he was assigned to do odd jobs around Lavizzo. Being a vagabond, he said, was insulting. 

“I helped the students, but I didn’t help myself. I am just out,” he said. “I am very disappointed. I am being structured out of a job.”

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