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First Person: A Teacher's Tale

Years from now we will remember the Great School Purge of 1993. Our memories will have been permanently stained by the greed and arrogance of career bureaucrats.



Cleopatra Block arrived at Englewood High School about three weeks ago from her family's house in Mount Prospect to begin her career as a teacher in the Chicago Public Schools. Young, smart, and full of enthusiasm, she was a needed addition to our aging faculty. But here she was in a back corner of the faculty lounge, attempting to hide behind a row of lockers. Her freckled face was red and distorted by tears. Nearby, Margaret Dyer sat at her desk in stunned silence. Not even ten years of putting up with the whims of the Board of Education prepared her for this. At the other end of the room, Daphne Williams sorted aimlessly through the belongings on her desk. All three teachers had just been informed by our principal that their positions had been cut by the Board of Education.

Years from now, teachers will remember this the way others recall hearing about Kennedy's assassination. My memory will be stained by the Great School Purge of 1993, by the greed and arrogance of the career bureaucrat and the suffering he caused.

With the push of a fax button, nine teachers were removed from our school. In the middle of the day, they were forced to abandon their classrooms and report to the board's offices on Pershing Road. The board would pay for substitutes to cover their classes until the students could be rescheduled. Meanwhile, the displaced teachers would become supernumeraries, meaning that the board would pay them to sit around until an "appropriate" classroom could be found.

I went home in a rage. As a third-year teacher I had apparently escaped the ax, but the school was in chaos. Most of the students in my English and broadcasting classes had lost at least one teacher. For many, their entire schedules would have to be changed. Seniors wondered if they would have the credits to graduate in June.

We had worked hard to start the year off right this time. At Englewood the benefits of the reform movement were finally kicking in. Traditionally, Englewood got the students other area schools didn't want. After Kenwood Academy, Hyde Park Academy, and Whitney Young Magnet High School skimmed off the best students, and King got the star athletes, we competed with Lindblom and DuSable high schools for the kids who remained.

With reform and the advent of local school councils came an attempt to develop a better academic environment at the school. About three years ago we were designated as a member of the national Coalition of Essential Schools, a progressive organization centered around principles of education developed at Brown University. Last year we changed the name of the school to the Englewood Technical Preparatory Academy in recognition of our efforts to prepare students for work in specific fields. We also instituted an interdisciplinary Afrocentric curriculum. For the last year and a half, teachers have been meeting after school to learn new skills, coordinate curricula, and develop strategies for teaching. While conditions in the classroom were slow to change, the prospects for the new year looked bright.

Upon entering Englewood students would choose among several strands; they included medical technology, metals technology, music, food service, and traditional college prep. I was a member of the business and entrepreneurial strand, and our goal was to coordinate a curriculum that encompassed all subject areas. In addition to the development of academic skills, all students would develop skills specific to their fields, such as typing or business administration.

Most of us were excited about the new year. Sure, the board had made the usual last-minute changes, this time forcing all high schools to reregister their students in September for seven 50-minute periods instead of eight 40-minute ones. While many schools prefer this new system, it would have been nice to know about these changes in June. The programming office at our school had to write 1,500-plus new schedules in a week. But we pulled it off. We also instituted tougher policies regarding loitering and class cutting.

Now all of these gains seemed to be slipping away. I left for the weekend angry at the system and anxious about what the following week would hold.

It didn't take long to find out. Over the long Columbus Day weekend, while the media were heralding a tentative agreement between the Board of Education and the Chicago Teachers Union, the board was busy calling teachers at home to cancel their positions. I got my call on Monday, October 11, at about four in the afternoon.

"You're the one I talked to before, aren't you?" began a stony-voiced woman on the other end of the line. No introduction, no hello. I assumed that she was an inept minimum-wage phone solicitor, but I decided to play along.

"I don't know," I replied. "Who are you?"

"Are you James Barnett?"


"Well then, you are the one I talked to. I have a position for you. You are to report to School X on Tuesday morning."

"Wait a second. Whoever you are, I've never spoken to you in my life, and on Friday my principal informed me that my position at Englewood was secure."

"I am calling to tell you that you are to report to School X. If you have any questions, you can call Malcolm Gunn at Personnel on Tuesday." Click.

On Tuesday, the principal at School X (my reasons for concealing the identity of the school will become apparent) informed me that he had no openings and had no idea why the board had assigned me there. My principal at Englewood instructed me to remain with my classes for the day, and said that he'd have the situation corrected by Wednesday. But on Wednesday the board gave the principal another list of position closings. Not only was my position number on the list (to the Board of Education, teachers don't exist without their position numbers), but so were the numbers of the two teachers who founded our Technical Preparatory curriculum. By the time the dust settled on Wednesday, our shop, business, music, and art departments had been reduced to one teacher each. I had been teaching three classes of radio and television broadcasting and two classes of freshman English. As I locked up the radio and television studio on Wednesday, I saw that the electronics and metals rooms had been shuttered as well, leaving only the print shop open for students.

Wednesday afternoon, I went to the board offices on Pershing Road to get some answers and hopefully a class to teach. While I did get some answers, none of them came from the board. Sitting at Personnel on Pershing Road were 30 or so other displaced teachers, most of them from shop or business departments. The stories they told were of a system-wide bloodbath: reports of 42 teachers displaced at Hyde Park Academy and 34 at Lane Tech. It seemed that Englewood had gotten off easy. Apparently, schools superintendent Argie Johnson was using the funding "crisis" to justify a widespread dismantling of vocational education. She had gone on television the previous week, saying that vocational education was like "tracking" students in classes according to their ability, which is anathema in politically correct education circles.

There's a legitimate debate regarding the value of vocational education in the urban community. Personally, I don't believe that vocational education precludes the development of higher thinking skills. In fact, popular vocational courses like television or music production can lure reluctant teenagers into a scholastic environment. Many teenagers learn best when they are physically involved in what they are learning. At the snooty education conferences that Dr. Johnson attends, the old debate between Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois may force her to side with Du Bois and his rejection of vocational education, but this is not the 19th century, and the leaders of tomorrow will be educated in both practical (read technological) and higher learning. And even if Johnson is right, the time to change philosophical direction is in June, not during the fifth week of school.

On Wednesday, I received my new assignment--to a science lab for kindergarten through sixth grade. I am neither qualified nor legally credentialed to teach in a grammar school science lab, but at the Board of Education common sense takes a back seat to paperwork. When a bureaucrat puts something in writing, it becomes final. So on Thursday I reported to School X for work.

The principal at X has turned out to be very understanding. He could have just placed me in the science lab and hoped for the best. But like most of the competent educators in the system, he has learned to adapt to the board by ignoring it as much as possible. While he was forced to accept me into the faculty, he has put me to work as a general substitute and preparing a videotape for future use as a school promotion. While I would prefer to be teaching the subject and grade level I'm qualified in, at least I'm being used productively, and I'm still employed.

Among teachers there is a general feeling of disbelief. At no other school system in the country that I know of are teachers arbitrarily reassigned during the school year purely on the basis of seniority, just to save money. Elsewhere teachers have over two months to prepare for the coming year, and they do so with the confidence that their work will not be in vain. But in Chicago even those with seniority face the prospect of reassignment in the middle of the year.

It's all a matter of numbers. A teacher with 20 years' experience can lose her position and be assigned to another school to replace someone with 7 years' experience. This teacher will in turn bump a newer teacher (such as myself), who might be assigned to a grammar school to replace what the board labels a "full-time basis substitute" (so-called because she performs all the duties of a regularly assigned teacher but earns no seniority). In order to cut back one position four teachers are displaced and hundreds of students are affected.

City and suburban teachers come from the same talent pool. Many city teachers live in the suburbs, and even the best suburban schools have teachers who actually live in the city. The blame for any inferiority in the Chicago system must rest on the institution itself. Teachers, just like their students, are educable. If they're in a positive environment where they're encouraged to develop their creativity, they will respond with exciting classes and inspired lessons. If they are shoved around in a system that cares more about contracts than education, they will soon care little about anything but their next paycheck.

The Board of Education threw 60 high schools into chaos this fall in an attempt to save $20 million out of a $2.6 billion budget. They did this after the school year began, knowing that they'd still have to borrow $200 million from the city and $100 million from the teachers' pension fund. They did this instead of closing down the board offices during the summer. They did this instead of eliminating more than $20 million in unspecified "professional service" contracts or the more than $30 million labeled in the budget simply "miscellaneous." They could have shut down the system during one teacher in-service day and saved close to $20 million. Instead the board has irreparably disrupted education for the year and endangered graduation for thousands of seniors.

The obvious reason for this is that most bureaucrats at the board never get anywhere close to a classroom. Their lives consist of conferences and paper shuffling, and they are rather good at it. But for the past 20 years they have actively prevented teachers from being good at what they do.

After the decimation of my program and my school this year I felt personally and professionally violated. It became difficult to drive a car or lie in bed without the adrenaline beginning to pump. I know that I am not the only teacher to feel this way. And I know that I will not put up with 30 more years of what I've had to deal with in the past 2. It wouldn't be fair to myself or the kids I'm teaching.

I think about some of my second-year television students. Many of them are not motivated in a typical classroom, but there is something about this format that gets them going. All I did was provide them with a forum, an outlet for their creativity. A couple of weeks ago, they produced a news show that we played over the cafeteria televisions during lunch. One of my students told me that teachers and students both expressed disbelief when he said he was part of the project. "I thought you all were a bunch of losers," one of his schoolmates told him.

Today, the television studio is locked up. That boy and the rest of the class are probably sitting in the auditorium during classtime, being baby-sat by security guards.

The thing that keeps me going is the idea that I am not the only one who feels this angry. The bureaucrats get away with what we let them, and maybe this time the energy is there for real change. While the LSCs are a good idea, they haven't made much of a difference. Maybe the school system should be broken up into smaller districts, each one based around a high school and its feeder elementary schools. Funding could be guaranteed throughout the system, and parents could still choose which public school their child would attend. The only difference is that the schools would be run by principals, teachers, parents, and members of the community rather than a distant cabal of career bureaucrats.

The one thing I know for sure is that the risks of change are lower than those of maintaining an educational system that is killing this city.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Kurt Mitchell.

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