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How a CPS teacher went from 'excellent' to 'do-not-hire' in one year

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On June 25, Mayor Rahm Emanuel invited a group of recent education-school graduates to help change the world by signing up with the Chicago Public Schools. "I hope you stay in the Chicago area because I will continue to do what I think is best in telling the city of Chicago that we have the best-trained, best-educated workforce," Emanuel said in a commencement address to graduates at National Louis University.

To hear the mayor tell it, CPS is a great place to teach. Obviously, he's never met Allison Bates.

Bates was a third-year science teacher at Austin Polytechnical high school on the west side. But earlier this year, she was fired and banned from working anywhere in CPS for the unforgivable sin of—hold on to your hats, folks—not putting her lesson plans in the red folder, as her principal told her.

Allison Bates is a casualty of CPS's "do-not-hire" designation. - ROBERT WARNER
  • Robert Warner
  • Allison Bates is a casualty of CPS's "do-not-hire" designation.

Welcome to the bureaucratic nightmare of the Chicago Public Schools' do-not-hire designation, the latest chapter in the city's curious strategy of re-forming the schools by making life miserable for the people who teach there.

In 2008 Bates, 35, received her master's degree in education from Dominican University in River Forest and went to work at Austin Polytech, one of three small schools housed in the old Austin high school.

"It's pretty much a neighborhood west-side school," says Bates. "You have your sweethearts—the little girls and boys from the neighborhood who are quiet and want to get their work done. You also have a lot of tough kids—kids with parole officers who can make it pretty hard on you."

As a rookie teacher, she had to learn to take control of her classroom. "I've had some moments," she says. "I've been told to shut the fuck up. I had one kid grab me on the arm and say, 'Move your ass, bitch.' You have to learn how to stand up for yourself."

She thought she was making progress. The principal who hired her, William Gerstein, rated her "excellent" in her evaluations.

But in the summer of 2010, Gerstein was promoted to a job with the central office. And CPS replaced him with Fabby Williams, an interim principal, who moved to Chicago from North Carolina to take the job.

In March, Williams evaluated Bates's performance as "unsatisfactory."

I called Williams to get his side of the story, but he didn't respond to my messages.

According to Williams's evaluation of Bates, her unsatisfactory rating had nothing to do with her ability to manage a classroom or teach science to her students, many of whom are reading on a fourth-grade level. In fact, the evaluation, which is based on Williams's observation of Bates for all of 30 minutes one day, makes no mention of her teaching abilities at all.

Instead, Williams notes that she had not followed his instructions to put printed-out copies of her lesson plans in the red folder that he instructed all teachers to leave in a box in their rooms.

"Based on lack of evidence (data binder and lesson plan binder which teacher is required to have in class daily and should have current materials in them) teacher did not regularly have lesson plans available for lessons taught," Williams wrote in the evaluation.

And why didn't Bates put the lesson plans in the red folder like her boss told her?

"It's just something I didn't get around to doing 'cause I was doing so many other things," says Bates. "In retrospect, I wish I'd have done it. And I have lesson plans. They're in my computer and the principal can read them anytime he wants. I believe in lesson plans. I follow them. I just don't need to print them out and have them right in front of me like I'm reading from a script."

To realize the significance of an unsatisfactory evaluation you need to know a little something about CPS probationary policies, so bear with me, readers.

Basically, probationary teachers—that is, those with less than four years in the classroom—have no tenure rights. They have their jobs on a year-to-year basis and can be fired without much of an explanation.

Moreover, probationary teachers who are given unsatisfactory evaluations and who are not rehired at their schools are slapped with a do-not-hire designation. Principals can hire back teachers evaluated as unsatisfactory, but if they don't, the teachers are essentially banned from ever teaching anywhere in the CPS system.

Traditionally, CPS reserved its do-not-hire designation for really bad people who do really bad things, like abusing their students.

But last year, then-schools CEO Ron Huberman expanded the designation to include probationary teachers with unsatisfactory ratings whose schools decide not to rehire them. So now do-not-hire includes people who don't put their lesson plans in the red folder.

One more time: thank you, Mr. Huberman, for all the wonderful things you did for the schools.

Anyway, Bates met with Williams on March 3 to talk about the evaluation. "I had two questions," she says. "One is, 'What is it about my teaching that you consider so bad?' And the other is, 'Are you planning to hire me back?'

"He told me he hadn't made up his mind about bringing me back," says Bates. "He also told me that I seemed frustrated. I said, 'Of course I am. My kids come in at a fourth-grade reading level. I want them to do better. Anyone would be frustrated. But that doesn't tell me about my teaching.'" She says he didn't have a response.

All told, Williams fired seven teachers, roughly a quarter of the staff. In addition to Bates, four others were probationary teachers who now face lifelong bans. Two of them tell me that Williams's evaluation cited them for not putting the lesson plans in the folder.

On May 16, about 100 students walked out of Austin Polytech in a show of support for the ousted teachers.

Two days later Williams called Bates to his office and handed her a letter from Flavia Hernández, the CPS chief officer for P-12 management, informing Bates that she had been "temporarily reassigned" to an administrative office pending "the result of an investigation of the incident/matter in question." The letter doesn't say what the "incident/matter in question" actually is. Hernández did not respond to my call for comment.

Once he'd delivered the letter, Williams led Bates back to her classroom to get her jacket and purse. "This is a school day and there's students in the classroom," she says. "They're asking me, 'Ms. Bates, where you going?' I could only tell them, 'I got to go.'"

After being escorted out of the school by security, she drove to the Area 19 administrative office. "I never knew why I was reassigned. No one told me what I was charged with or what incident or matter they were investigating. They punished me without telling me my crime."

Eventually, a union official—who filed a grievance on her behalf—told Bates that she'd been accused of inciting the student walkout. "That's ridiculous," Bates says. "The students did that on their own. I had nothing to do with it."

For the last month of the school year, until it officially ended on June 17, Bates reported to work every day at the area administrative office, where she sat at a desk in the corner and read a book. She's now appealing her unsatisfactory evaluation in the hopes of overturning the do-not-hire designation so she can get another job in the system. And she's still paying off the $13,000 she borrowed to get her master's degree.

As for her students, they got a month's worth of substitute teachers. Or, as Mayor Emanuel might put it, they "got the shaft."

Incidentally, Williams is no longer at Austin Polytech—he took a new job as principal at suburban Bolingbrook High School. "The man was here for less than a year and he left everybody's life in shambles," says David Corwin, another probationary teacher at Austin Polytech who was given the do-not-hire designation. "He's gone and we're left to pick up the pieces."

YOU KNOW YOU'RE REALLY OLD WHEN . . .

You're writing about the school-teaching kids of teachers you wrote about years ago. Let me explain:

In the winter of 1995, I noticed a story in the Sun-Times pointing out that six of the ten winners in a citywide high school poetry-writing contest came from Lane Tech.

I read the poems and they were pretty damn good.

Curious about why so many good poets were coming from one school—which back then was primarily known as a technical school—I made a few calls and wound up having coffee at a north side cafe with an English teacher named Randy Bates.

You guessed it—Allison Bates's father.

It turned out that Randy Bates was also Lane's drama coach and he was gearing up to stage a production of The Diary of Anne Frank. I came up with a plan to follow the production from auditions to cast party and write one of those endless epics the Reader used to run in those days.

Alas, a few days before auditions, the principal fired Bates as drama coach and reassigned him from creative writing. Apparently the principal was upset because Bates had complained about safety hazards in the auditorium to Lane's local school council, an oversight body of parents, teachers, and community reps.

A few dozen of Bates's students walked out to protest his hiring, staging a demonstration right in front of the school.

I wrote it up, hammering Lane with everything I had. Randy Bates told me that the assistant principal said to him that if "that newspaper guy" ever came to Lane, "I'll kick his ass."

Fortunately, he never made good on that threat, though I went to Lane every year to watch its Thanksgiving basketball tournament. Good thing I always wore my Groucho Marx mustache.

Randy Bates retired in 2006 and now he's reliving it all with the crackdown on his daughter.

As old teachers will tell you, the more things change at CPS—well, you know the rest. 

E-mail Ben Joravsky at bjoravsky@chicagoreader.com. Joravsky discusses his reporting weekly with journalist Dave Glowacz at mrradio.org/benj. Subscribe to their podcast at the iTunes Store.

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