CPS principals: The voice you’ve been waiting for

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Troy LaRaviere is principal of Blaine Elementary School. Photo was taken on June 5, 2014.

Photos by Michelle Kanaar

Troy LaRaviere is principal of Blaine Elementary School. Photo was taken on June 5, 2014.

A few months ago, a group of CPS principals began work on what would become the Administrators Alliance for Proven Policy and Legislation in Education (AAPPLE).  AAPPLE—pronounced “apple”—is a member-driven arm of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association (CPAA).  Since introducing AAPPLE to school leaders two weeks ago, nearly every CPS principal we’ve talked to told us CPAA is not taking a strong enough stance on behalf of principals and their schools.  They want the organization to stand against policies and practices that are crippling the ability of principals to provide their students with the education they deserve; policies and practices that send throngs of talented principals, assistant principals and even network administrators limping away from the district each year.  

In surveys and conversations, principals voiced concerns about a lack of autonomy and an “endless daily barrage of direct orders, mandates, and deadlines” that hurt students by focusing principal time on activities that have no bearing on improving teaching and learning. In survey responses they protested “overbearing” network chiefs and their staff, whom principals felt were nothing more than “glorified compliance clerks” too busy with central office projects to offer schools any real support (Networks 1 and 11 were often cited as exceptions to this rule).  In addition, CPS passes on the work of understaffed central office departments to principals so that school leaders end up “working for departments that are supposed to work for us.” Principals also voiced strong concerns about CPS’s new budgeting system and its detrimental effects on their ability to provide students with the instructional resources and support they need.

Perhaps the loudest message was that principals and assistant principals wanted CPAA to be a “strong voice” for them and their schools.  They wanted CPAA to be an organization that is “at the table and in the press.” They want an advocate that “publicly vocalizes the many concerns of school leaders,” works to resolve them, and campaigns for effective policies that assist principals in their efforts to facilitate and support student learning.  The following comment is illustrative:

“I have often thought about quitting because I could not see the organization standing up against many of the outrageous backward policies put forth by Central Office Officials and the mayor’s office. CPAA needs to be more vocal.“

The clear message they sent us is that CPAA isn’t doing enough.  Their concerns are legitimate.  Not long ago, I had those same concerns.  In fact AAPPLE got its start when a group of principals went into CPAA and approached President Clarice Berry with these exact issues.  We asked the question, “What is CPAA doing?  What impact is it having?” We learned that CPAA has made significant accomplishments; that–as bad as things have gotten–they would be worse without CPAA’s efforts on behalf of school leaders.  The organization fought battles in the areas of administrator long-term illness policies, state legislation, salary, principal eligibility, and network abuse and harassment of school leaders.  CPAA fought some—but not all—of our battles. It won some and lost others.  Some fell through the cracks, and this must be addressed.  However, it is certain that CPAA was at the table fighting and winning victories for principals and their schools.

None of us knew anything about these accomplishments before that meeting. So we focused our frustrations on what we perceived as CPAA’s lack of communication with its members.  President Berry told us that she puts everything in the bi-montly newsletter.  We said this was not enough and began peppering the president with questions and ideas about how she can communicate better with CPAA members.  One idea that surfaced was for CPAA to send out regular short messages focused on one or two current issues it is working on, in addition to the lengthy bi-monthly newsletter.  Like all of us, she had quite a bit on her plate, and—like CPS does to us—we were asking her to pile even more on it without any additional resources or support.

At that point, I stepped back for a moment and listened to the president respond to our ideas about what she should be doing for principals through CPAA. After a few moments the words, “I’ll do it” came out of my mouth.

“I will do it,” I repeated.

There is a quotation from President John F. Kennedy’s 1960 inaugural address.  All of us have heard it, but until that moment I had not thought so deeply about its meaning to my own life and work.

“And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”

With those words, President Kennedy encapsulated the idea that our nation is only as great as the dedication, passion, ideas, and sweat that “we the people” put into it. We must be a citizen-driven nation.

As I listened to the CPAA president respond to our complaints about what the organization hasn’t done, it became obvious that Kennedy’s principle must be put to work in our organization.  CPAA must be a member-driven organization.  It is our work–the work of on-the-ground school leaders–that will make CPAA a powerful force for positive change in our schools.

“I’ll do it.  I’ll write the bi-weekly update,” I said.

“I’ll help,” said another principal.  He continued, “Clarice, just give us a time that we can sit down with you and hammer out the first one.”  Other principals then stepped up to help implement various ideas that had been put on the table, including an idea for a citywide education forum that one principal had been working on with community members and university faculty.  Two principals stepped up to lead the work on a series of surveys and interviews that led to the current inquiry into CPS’s Student Based Budgeting.  Yet another principal stepped up to do the research for a framework for effective education policy—an evidence-based framework for AAPPLE’s policy advocacy work.

President Berry supported every one of those initiatives and even commissioned an official CPAA committee to help implement them.  We decided to focus our work on policies that affect our ability to provide our students with the instruction, learning climate, and resources they need and deserve (e.g., budget, autonomy, school closings, REACH, custodial privatization [Aramark], testing, etc.).  We gave the committee the name, “Administrators Alliance for Proven Policy and Legislation in Education” (AAPPLE) and moved forward with its work.

 We talked to—and surveyed—scores of principals and we believe their concerns about CPAA’s power to counter negative district policies and practices are legitimate. CPAA lost some of its strength over the years and there is certainly more it can do to advocate for principals as well as put principals in a position to advocate effectively for their schools, their students, and for each other.  However, in order to make that happen we must realize the depth of President Kennedy’s words.  More importantly we must come face-to-face with the truth of a statement our current President made famous:

 “We are the people we’ve been waiting for.”

 Troy Anthony LaRaviere is the principal of Blaine Elementary School, a parent at Kellogg Elementary School, chairperson of the Administrators Alliance for Proven Policy and Legislation in Education and president of Auxiliary II – Chicago Principals and Administrators Association.