One of the first signs of significant change at the top of Chicago's public school system was an otherwise innocuous light blue postcard that came in the mail last week. It was sent by PURE, a parents' advocacy group, to its supporters, announcing that its annual meeting would be held October 4. The featured speaker? Schools CEO Arne Duncan.
"It may sound hard to believe, but, yes, it's true--Arne Duncan will be our featured speaker," says Julie Woestehoff, executive director of PURE, which stands for Parents United for Responsible Education. "And we're glad to have him."
The notion of PURE and the central office's CEO coming together to break bread and discuss policy would have been virtually unimaginable in the latter years of Paul Vallas's reign. Vallas, Duncan's predecessor, and PURE "did not have a very friendly relationship," says Keith Bromery, the central office's chief press spokesman.
That's putting it mildly. Vallas despised PURE, or at least its outspoken independence, and PURE's leaders despised Vallas, or at least his policies and management style. The two sides had been fighting over issues and personalities for the better part of four years.
It was probably inevitable that Vallas and PURE would clash, since they emerged from two vastly contrasting movements. In 1988, PURE's founders, who were public school parents, helped usher in an age of local control, in which each school was placed under the command of a locally elected council of parents, residents, teachers, and the principal. Aside from the view of educational issues it offered as an alternative to the central office line, its greatest contribution was workshops that helped guide various local school councils through the thicket of federal, local, and state rules and regulations.
Vallas came into power in 1995 under a new law that gave Mayor Daley control over the school system. From the moment he took office, Vallas made it clear that he believed he had the authority to overrule the councils even on issues such as principal selection.
Both sides did their best to get along in the first few years of Vallas's reign. "Believe it or not, Vallas and [former board president] Gery Chico once came to one of our annual meetings," Woestehoff recalls. "That was in the summer of 1995, right after they came into office. We were meeting at Truman College. I remember we had one preliminary get-together with Vallas even before that. [PURE founders] Bernie and Joy Noven were complaining about not getting information out of the board's freedom of information office. And Vallas made a declaration--he was always great at declarations. He said, 'Don't worry, I'll be your freedom of information officer.' It's funny to think about that, considering what would happen."
In 1996, PURE leaders had a second meeting with Vallas. "We met for lunch at the Pegasus restaurant in Greek Town," says Woestehoff. "It was his choice to go to Pegasus. He was such a big shot at that place. You should have seen him schmoozing with the maitre d'."
Their final meeting came not long after, and by then Woestehoff and her allies understood a thing or two about Vallas: "He was always very friendly, very cordial. It was Julie this and Julie that. He would hug me. Yet we realized we had to be proactive. Vallas can walk into a room and swallow all the oxygen. You can listen to him talk for two hours and then your time's up and nothing has happened. You haven't even talked about the things you wanted to talk about. So at that last meeting we had very specific things we wanted to address, particularly early-childhood education. We were on a [board-created] task force and we wanted to know why it hadn't been meeting. I remember Vallas picked up the phone and called an aide and said, 'What's going on? Get this early-childhood task force going.'"
Apparently Vallas didn't move fast enough on the matter. As much as Woestehoff wanted to maintain good relations, she felt compelled to offer "constructive criticism" when a reporter called for comment. "The day the story came out with my quotes, the phone rang and it was Vallas, and he wanted to know why I had said what I had said. I said, 'Paul, you know what it's like when you talk to a reporter. They're always looking for the opposite side. I probably said 25 good things and they quoted the one negative.' And he said, 'Why did you say the bad things? Why did you even give that to him?' And I said, 'It's our position, it's the way we see it.' After that we never resolved our differences. I tried to make some overture, to say even though we disagree we can work together. I sent him a Christmas card. But he never responded. I believe our name had gone on a blacklist and that was that."
By about 1997, PURE had obviously made the central office's enemies list. Vallas mocked PURE's leaders and trivialized the issues they raised. He dismissed them as part of a cabal of troublemakers who wanted to return the system to the bad old ways it followed before he came along.
"We got the word from people in schools all over the city that it wasn't a good idea to have PURE come to your school," says Woestehoff. "It was a bad time for us because we do have to interact with the school system because we want to be in the schools to help parents and teachers. But the word got out that nobody was to allow PURE into their school."
Their big disagreement with Vallas was over high-stakes standardized testing. PURE denounced these tests at press conferences and in reports, and in the fall of 1999 filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Education alleging that the school board's testing policy unfairly discriminated against blacks and Latinos, who were chief among the thousands of students held back each year for "flunking" the standardized tests. Eventually the school board changed its policy to allow students to advance to the next grade even if they flunked.
From PURE's perspective, Vallas was a powerful foe almost worshiped by the mainstream press and destined to stay in power just as long as he wanted to. But last June a curious thing happened. Daley dumped Vallas and brought in Duncan, who'd been one of Vallas's aides. A few weeks went by and then Woestehoff, figuring what the hell, sent Duncan a note of congratulations. Duncan E-mailed her back, suggesting they meet.
"We met in August," says Woestehoff. "He was very pleasant and surprisingly welcoming. We didn't talk about our relationship with Vallas. We talked about various issues of concern to us. He listened very intently. And at the end of the meeting I said, 'We'd love to have you speak at our annual meeting.' He said, 'That's fine, set it up with my secretary.'"
And so Duncan will address the conference, which will be held October 4 at 5:30 PM at Juarez High School, 2150 S. Laflin.
Keith Bromery guards against reading too much into Duncan's appearance before PURE. It's just part of Duncan's effort to be accessible and open to everyone, says Bromery: "He's reaching out to all groups, not just school-reform groups but the faith-based community, the civic organizations, the philanthropic organizations, the business community--everything. He's spent the first few weeks since he took over just talking to people. It's the old Hillary Clinton it-takes-a-village mind-set."
Private meetings with reformers aside, Duncan's sticking with a lot of Vallas's programs, including high-stakes testing. "I don't think that because CEO Duncan's reaching out and talking to people and is collaborative, that means he's going to adopt the philosophies of all these people he's talking to," says Bromery.
But Woestehoff's optimistic: "I'm hoping that there really can be a change, at least on a personal level. I think it's important for people to get on the right foot and to work together, even if they disagree from time to time. I hope we don't go back to those bad old days where the central office put out the word, 'Don't let PURE into your school.' I hope we can get beyond all of that."
Last week a north-side college stu-
udent named Jeffrey Nichols read in the Reader that library commissioner Mary Dempsey had commanded the removal and possible destruction of thousands of perfectly readable books from the Sulzer Regional Library. He got so upset he sent an E-mail to Dempsey. "I was wondering if you could tell me what is going on with the destruction of books at your Sulzer regional library location," wrote Nichols. "Please tell me why a library would destroy books, instead of preserving them for the betterment of the community."
To his surprise, Dempsey E-mailed him back. "All CPL libraries are required to regularly weed to keep the collections fresh and up-to-date to meet the needs of library patrons," Dempsey told Nichols. "During the process, librarian subject specialists replace books that are out-of-date, damaged, or no longer in demand, with current titles in the same subject areas. This is especially critical for books about medicine, science, the social sciences and current events. Classic books that are damaged are replaced with new editions.
"Sulzer Library staff themselves have long recognized the need to extensively weed the collection in order to make room for new books, and they have been integral to the current weeding process.
"Librarians involved in the current project at Sulzer have weeded social studies, medical and science books from the 1950's, 1960's, 1970's and 1980's, tax preparation guides from the 1970's, computer books from the 1970's and 1980's, investment guides from the 1980's, world atlas from 1983, exam preparation guides from the 1980's and fiction that is either damaged or multiple copies of titles no longer in high demand.
"Sulzer's shelves have been replenished with new books that had previously been purchased and were sitting in the basement of Sulzer waiting for room on shelves and current titles returned by Sulzer patrons. Lists of subject areas or titles of books for repurchase, made as part of the weeding process, have already been ordered for the Sulzer collection."
Dempsey's account does not resemble the one provided by insiders at Sulzer, who fear retribution if identified. They say they were never asked to assist in the weeding so don't see how Dempsey can say they were integral to the process. According to several accounts, three central office staffers who knew little if anything about Sulzer's collection marched in one day last month and started pulling books. These books were taken to Sulzer's basement, where they were packed into boxes (after their title pages had been ripped out) and sent away in trucks to--well, the central office still won't say where the books have been taken.
The weeding (or purging, as critics call it) began in the fiction section, with the weeders going after books in buckram binding, multiple copies (say, six copies of a novel pruned to two), and old books that looked obsolete, out of fashion, or maybe just politically incorrect (they apparently took quite a few books by Kipling).
"Yes, we do weedings, but we follow a process," says a Sulzer insider. "We pull a book off the shelf, check the catalog to see if it's still in print. If it sat there for five years and nobody checked it out, then we might weed it. We might pull seven of ten old best-sellers since the demand has gone down and these are not the sort of books that teachers are going to assign. We'll weed books if they're in bad shape, if they're stained or water damaged. But we're not going to weed a book just because it hasn't gone out in a year or because we've never heard of it. And we certainly aren't going to get rid of the buckram-covered books. That's the perfect cover for a library book because it's durable. It's nonsense to say readers won't check them out because they don't have a picture on the cover. Haven't they ever heard of the saying, 'You can't judge a book by its cover'?"
While Nichols and Dempsey exchanged E-mail, some Sulzer staffers managed to sneak away some of the torn-out title pages and pass them on to reporters. Several of the discarded books were well-known to readers as well as to librarians, including the best-seller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, by John Berendt; Oscar Wilde, a biography by Richard Ellman; Losing Ground, by Charles Murray; Personal History by Katharine Graham; The Negro's Civil War, by James McPherson; a 1983 edition of John Gunther's Death Be Not Proud; Studs Terkel's American Dreams: Lost and Found; John Bayley's recent memoir, Elegy for Iris; Gulliver's Travels; and Lloyd Wendt's massive history of the Chicago Tribune.
Nichols says he's unsatisfied with Dempsey's response. She still has not said how many books were taken (the Sulzer insiders say more than 20,000) or where they're being kept or whether in fact she plans to have them destroyed. "I'm not even sure they should just get rid of those medical and science books just because they're old," says Nichols. "Medical books in particular will always be a part of our history because historians would want to compare a medical book from the 50s to one we have today to see how much they've changed. This whole thing is just reprehensible."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry/Eric Werner.