News & Politics » Ben Joravsky on Politics

An award-winning principal urges Mayor Rahm to stop privatizing schools

Sometimes you have to tell the boss something he doesn't want to hear.



As a counterpoint to the last four years of school cuts, closings, testing, and privatization, I urge you to watch a recent speech—which you can find here—by Elizabeth Heurtefeu, a former public school principal.

Mayor Emanuel knows all about the speech because he was there when Heurtefeu delivered it, as annoying as that must have been for him.

The venue was one of those Chicago Public Schools ceremonies during which officials such as the mayor show up to take credit for something they had nothing to do with. In this case, LaSalle Language Academy—a north-side magnet school—winning a prestigious National Blue Ribbon Schools Program award from the U.S. Department of Education.

Heurtefeu was LaSalle's principal before she retired at the end of last year. A Paris native, she first visited Chicago in 1996. Almost on a whim, she applied for and got a job as a teacher at Lycée Français de Chicago, a French-language school on the north side. She worked her way up the ranks at Lycée until she became the school's director of elementary education.

In 2007—again on a whim—she applied for the job as LaSalle's principal.

"I didn't think I would get it," says Heurtefeu. "I had no experience with the public schools."

Still, she got the job.

LaSalle is a highly regarded magnet school whose students must apply to get in. But for all its prestige, it's still a part of CPS. That means too many tests, not enough funding, and far too many central-office bosses telling teachers and administrators what to do. Other than that—what a great system!

Heurtefeu survived yearly top-down mandates in everything from payroll to personnel during her time at LaSalle. Perhaps the low point was the infamous $20.5 million principal-training program of 2013.

"We received an e-mail on the Fourth of July from the CEO telling us that [in a few days] we had to report for mandatory five-day training," Heurtefeu says. "What a waste of time. But when you are told by the CEO you have to go, you have to go."

The feds are now investigating that program because former CPS CEO Barbara Byrd- Bennett once worked for the company that got the no-bid contract.

As much as she loved the kids and teachers, Heurtefeu says, she had had "enough with the bureaucracy." By the time she retired, LaSalle was up for a Blue Ribbon award. Education secretary Arne Duncan announced late last month that LaSalle had won one.

So back to Friday's celebration.

It was a gorgeous day, and several political dignitaries showed up, including Emanuel and new CPS CEO Forrest Claypool.

After the officials spoke, Heurtefeu stepped to the microphone to resounding cheers. Even Mayor Emanuel rose to his feet.

Heurtefeu began by saying hello in six different languages. "I'm not bragging here," she said. "I just want everybody to realize how speaking another language is important in this world."

Then she turned to Claypool, who was sitting next to her.

"I'm going to make a plea not to cut any more language positions in the future," she said. "Mr. Claypool—deal?"

With that she reached out her hand to Claypool, who had no choice but to take it—what with everyone watching and the cameras rolling and all.

"That's a deal," she said. "And we have seen it."

"You saw my French side in that speech," she told me later with a laugh. "I wanted to be a little political. I think I was speaking for many principals who can't speak up."

Poor Claypool. He had a  frozen smile on his face as if to say, Lady, don't do this to me with the boss watching.

After all, Mayor Emanuel brought in Claypool—a trusted factotum from City Hall—to play tough with the Chicago Teachers Union. As such, Claypool has already warned he'll lay off up to 5,000 teachers if the union doesn't take a 7 percent pay cut.

The last thing he wants to do is make a deal not to fire any teachers—even if the deal isn't, technically speaking, binding.

Heurtefeu then said the state should change its teacher certification policies. Claypool nodded in agreement to that—because everyone's got the mayor's permission to blame stuff on Springfield.

If she had ripped into Mayor Daley, they probably would've given her the keys to the city.

Having temporarily won over the bosses, Heurtefeu promptly lost them by making a plea against what she called "privatization."

Translation: Stop creating new charter schools, which drain money from public schools such as LaSalle.

When Heurtefeu finished there was no standing ovation from the dignitaries. But at least the mayor didn't hurl the F-bomb at her. Remember, this is the new sweater-wearing mayor, who vowed to be more tolerant after voters forced him into a runoff. Alas, the tolerance only goes so far.

The City Council had been mulling a resolution calling for a one-year moratorium on new charter schools.

But Alderman Will Burns—chair of the council's education committee—didn't have it on the agenda at Monday's hearing.

Burns is a close mayoral ally, from which we can deduce that the mayor doesn't want to stop school privatization, no matter what the Blue Ribbon winner said on the matter.

Ms. Heurtefeu, I can tell you from experience these folks don't give up easy.

Congratulations on your award—and welcome to the fight.  v

Comments (12)

Showing 1-12 of 12

Add a comment

Add a comment