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Annals of school reform: teachers vs. principal at Amundsen High



For the last two years teachers and members of the local school council at Amundsen High School have worked together in a model of cooperation. They cut truancy by forcing parents to take greater responsibility for their children and cracked down on gang activities by enforcing strict discipline and a dress code.

But in the last few months the alliance has dissolved over an LSC proposal that would give Ed Klunk, the school's principal, the power to fire up to half of the faculty.

The teachers contend that the proposal violates the union contract and makes them far too vulnerable to Klunk's dictates. They also believe their erstwhile allies on the LSC betrayed them by blatantly disregarding their pleas. "We asked them again and again not to adopt that measure--and they did it anyway," says George Schmidt, one of the LSC's two teacher members and the school's union delegate. "They're not treating us like professionals. They're treating us like hired hands in a power play to replace independent-minded teachers with puppets."

Klunk and his allies deny these accusations and charge Schmidt with stirring up faculty dissent by distorting the council's intentions. "George is very bright, but he likes to stir things up and give me a lot of strain," says Klunk. Schmidt, an English teacher, also writes muckraking articles on central-office excesses for the teacher newspaper Substance. "A lot of teachers have been misled," says Klunk. "They don't realize that this program is best for the school."

At issue is the LSC's proposal to establish a special environmental-studies curriculum, which would be used, among other things, to attract higher-achieving students to Amundsen. The curriculum would be part of a program called Options for Knowledge, which the school board instituted in the late 1970s to avoid court-ordered busing. The idea then was to offer special programs in selected all-white schools that would attract black students from other neighborhoods. In time, however, as the system became more black and Hispanic, these programs were used to lure white students.

That's the case at Amundsen, where white students now make up 27 percent of the enrollment, down from nearly 90 percent two decades ago. (About 46 percent of Amundsen's students are Hispanic and 11 percent black; the neighborhood surrounding the school at Damen and Foster is about 60 percent white.) "We were told by central-office officials that we were out of compliance with desegregation mandates and that we were becoming what they call a racially unstable school," says Ray Carrell, chairman of Amundsen's LSC. "We needed Options to attract more white and black kids so we wouldn't become overwhelmingly Hispanic."

In effect, Carrell says, the central office was ordering them to attract more whites and blacks. But the LSC had other motives for changing the curriculum; they wanted to improve the school's image. Amundsen isn't an awful school. Its halls are safe--though a little dirty--and most of its students score above the citywide averages in math and reading. But for one reason or another, many of the neighborhood's smartest kids were opting to go to other schools.

"Every year we would see more and more of the better students--kids who live inside our boundaries--going to other schools, like Lane Tech or Lincoln Park or Whitney Young. And we wanted that to change," says Harriet O'Donnell, a community representative on Amundsen's council. "We felt that an Options program would not only help attract white and black kids to bring us into compliance with integration laws, but it would also make our school stand out. It would give Amundsen an identity. It would make some kid say, 'Forget Lane. I want to go to Amundsen!'"

So at the LSC's urging, Klunk, a former biology teacher and "committed environmentalist," devised a curriculum in environmental studies, which he unveiled in the spring. As he envisioned it, environmental studies would be "interdisciplinary and supplementary to the existing course offerings for English, Social Studies, Science and Math." In their English class, for instance, students might study naturalists such as Thoreau and Emerson. They might trace the evolution of environmental law in history class or examine the fragile interplay of nature's resources in science class.

Klunk would dispatch teachers who would act as salesmen, demonstrating the program's potential to children in grade schools throughout the city. Enrollment would be open to all, with students chosen by lottery if there were more applicants than available spaces, though all high school students from within Amundsen's neighborhood boundaries would be admitted.

There was only one major proviso: Klunk didn't feel he could successfully implement the program with the current faculty. "I need experts," he says. "I need to bring in teachers who really know the subject."

That comment cuts to the heart of long-standing tensions between teachers and principals. Teachers, principals frequently point out, are protected by lifetime tenure. Indeed, the process of removing an incompetent teacher--or even one accused of serious offenses, such as drinking on the job--is long, laborious, and tilted in favor of the accused. "It can take years to get bad teachers out of a school," says Klunk. "And usually you only succeed in moving them to another school."

But principals must have their jobs approved by their LSCs every four years. "We're held accountable for how a school performs when we renegotiate our contract," says Klunk. "It only makes sense--if you're going to hold us accountable, you have to give us more control. I'm willing to take the challenge of improving Amundsen, but I can't go into this thing with my hands tied. If my neck's on the line, I'm not going to take that challenge unless I can comb the country and bring in the best people I can find. Otherwise the program is destined to fail."

Specifically, Klunk demands that English, math, social studies, and science teachers--about half the faculty--reapply for their jobs. If he wants them, they stay. If he doesn't, they will be replaced with someone he does want. And his decision is final. "I don't know how many of the current staff would be replaced," he says. "I haven't started interviewing yet. But this shouldn't be a big deal. The procedure for creating an Options program is established by union contract--other schools have done it. No teachers will lose their job. They may lose their positions at Amundsen, but the system has to find them a job at another school. Furthermore, I can't do this every year. It's a one-shot deal--they give me one year to select my staff. After that all the normal rules regarding tenure and seniority kick in."

From the start, however, Amundsen's teachers were outraged by Klunk's proposal. "Sure, there are guards against removing teachers, but there's a reason for them," says Schmidt. "Years ago you needed clout to get a job--you had to know someone downtown. If they didn't like you, they could fire you on the spot. You had no rights. Today we have rights, but Klunk wants to change that." Moreover, he argues, principals are not nearly as powerless as Klunk contends. They control a teacher's ratings and which classes he or she gets to teach. And they can drive teachers out by making their lives miserable with silly rules, stupid tasks, and petty regulations--which many principals have done.

"We're not against the new environmental program," says Rose Johnson, an English teacher. "We're against forcing teachers out. If someone wants to leave on their own, fine. It should be voluntary. If he doesn't think we're qualified, we can take some training. We can learn. A lot of us have been here for years. We have roots in this school. We like it here. Why should we be forced to leave?

"What's happening is that Klunk's going to get rid of all the teachers who speak their minds and replace them with his puppets--who are so scared for their jobs that they'll sit quietly while he does whatever he wants to."

Klunk's proposal was discussed last spring and summer at several LSC meetings that were sparsely attended by parents and in August the LSC approved it. "We felt that Ed Klunk should have the authority to implement his program as he sees fit," says Harriet O'Donnell. "There are some teachers who choose not to adapt to any type of change in their normal program. Well, we can't tolerate normalcy anymore. Reform is about change. If the system was so great, we wouldn't have had to reform it in the first place."

Despite his council's support, Klunk can't begin the program without the school board's approval. He hopes to get that approval sometime this winter, so he can start interviewing teachers and implement the new curriculum next fall.

"I find it fascinating that some teachers are so upset--and yet they are fighting to stay in Amundsen," says O'Donnell. "If they are so unhappy with us, why do they want to stay? We must be doing something right."

Schmidt and other teachers are stepping up their counterattack by filing union grievances against Klunk. They're even contemplating a lawsuit. "We think it's illegal to use a desegregation program to eliminate teachers," says Schmidt. "They're going to have to learn to treat teachers with more respect."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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