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Too Good for His Own Good

Thinking outside the box worked wonders at Boone Elementary. Now Vallas may fire the principal.

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By Linda Lutton

In February's state of the city address, Mayor Daley called on educators to think "outside of the box" to improve student learning. By that time the central administration of the Chicago Public Schools already had a hammer raised squarely over Daniel Boone Elementary School.

Not much about Boone, in West Rogers Park, is in the box. Since the advent of reform, individual public schools have been given significant control over everything from their curriculum to the organization of their class day, but most neighborhood elementary schools look remarkably similar. They have computer labs and libraries. They offer art or music and physical education once a week. They have departmentalized middle and upper grades, which means that starting sometime around fifth grade students have different teachers for different subjects. They implement programs developed at universities or sold by textbook companies in an attempt to provide a common thread to instruction or to raise kids' test scores.

Not at Boone. Take technology, for instance. There are no computer labs at Boone, which is just the way school leaders want it. "There's a thousand kids in this school," says principal Paul Zavitkovsky, "and you can only get 30 kids in a lab at any time--you do the numbers." Instead of having a lab, Boone bought two carts of laptops, which students use in classrooms as they would calculators or encyclopedias. "We want technology integrated into the learning process as much as paper and pencils are," says Zavitkovsky.

A spaceshiplike disk sits on a high wooden shelf in the corner of Jennifer Mundt's eighth-grade classroom at Boone, next to the T1 access line that Zavitkovsky finagled someone to install over a weekend--gratis. Had the school waited for CPS to install the T1 drop, they'd likely still be waiting, says Zavitkovsky. That disk on the shelf is a router, wirelessly connecting the laptops to the Internet. Mundt's students have used the laptops to collect raw data on earthquake and volcanic activity, which they then employed to map out from scratch where the earth's plates meet. They've also compared how Israeli and Arab newspapers cover the news. When Mundt's students aren't using the laptops, the computers can be wheeled into another classroom.

Mundt is typical of Boone's teachers--and completely atypical of CPS instructors at this grade level--because her 28 students are with her all day, every day, for every subject. All fifth- through eighth-graders at Boone are assigned to self-contained classrooms or to a two-person teaching team. Most principals say they're getting their students ready for high school by having them change teachers for every subject. "We're making a conscious choice to stabilize relationships between teacher and student, because we think that's key to learning," says Zavitkovsky.

The list of things that differentiate Boone from other schools goes on. The gifted and talented teacher works with all upper-grade students--not just the gifted and talented--targeting activities to the level of the highest achievers. The bulk of the school's books aren't in the library; Boone puts some 300 books in every classroom. And the school doesn't rely on textbook companies to provide consistency among the classrooms--a couple years ago Boone's local school council, which includes two PhDs, an MD, and a few people with master's degrees, determined that should be done from scratch. Since then, teachers have met regularly to hash out what students need to know and when they should learn it.

On a recent morning in Boone's lunchroom, fifth-graders choreographed dances to the Byrds' "Turn! Turn! Turn!" for their "movement" class, which takes the place of gym. "Your interpretations don't need to be literal--save that for science class," the teacher tells her students, more than 75 percent of whom speak a language other than English at home. Boone's two music instructors teach drama, another fairly exotic offering for a CPS elementary school. The dance activity was part of a schoolwide, yearlong study of the 1960s, which culminated this week with a "teach-in" on overcrowding.

There's evidence that Boone's strategies are working: The school's standardized test scores have climbed over the last decade--in 2000, 60 percent of students scored at or above national norms in reading on the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, up from 40 percent in 1991 (citywide only 36 percent of students do as well), and 73 percent scored at or above national norms in math, up from 44 percent in '91 (the citywide number is now 45 percent). That's despite an increase in the percentage of low-income and limited-English students and overcrowding that forced multiple classes to share a single room and one fourth-grade class to adopt the library as its homeroom. In math Boone scores in the top 12 percent of all CPS elementary schools--including magnets--and in reading it's in the top 13 percent. In 1999 Boone was the first CPS school to win the International Reading Association's Exemplary Reading Award, which has only gone to a handful of schools in the district since, and last spring it was one of six schools in the country to win the National School Change Award, handed out by the National Principals' Leadership Institute at Fordham University.

But if you live by out-of-the-box strategies, you may well die by them. At least that's the way things look to Boone's LSC and principal. CPS has spent hundreds of personnel hours looking at Boone over the past year, but it hasn't been an attempt to figure out why the school is successful or to duplicate its strategies. Instead, CPS has fought Boone's LSC in court, issued warnings for parents to stop meeting, and mounted an investigation that put every aspect of the school's finances under a microscope. Now it appears set to recommend that Zavitkovsky, who's headed the school since 1989, be dismissed.

Boone's real run-in with the central administration started a year ago, on spring report-card pickup day. Before that there were only little things--like the school's officials calling in TV cameras to draw attention to overcrowding and peeling lead paint--that might have made the school board unhappy.

Four years ago, Boone decided parents should have more time to meet with teachers on report-card pickup day. All public elementary schools are assigned one day in the fall and one day in the spring to meet with parents to discuss report cards. The number of hours that teachers are available on that day is the same systemwide--whether the school has 200 students or 2,000.

That didn't make sense to Zavitkovsky or the LSC at Boone, a school of 1,100 students, so they got creative. Each year local schools are given flexibility in determining where to place several floating half days. Boone decided--with permission from CPS's regional office--to make the day prior to report-card pickup day a half day for students and a full day for teachers. That way the school could offer parents at least a few additional hours to meet with teachers.

But last year, on April 5, report-card pickup day was also election day for local school councils. CPS started scheduling the two events for the same day in 1996 in an effort to increase voter turnout. Boone had 1,047 report cards picked up over the course of two days; about a quarter of those were picked up on the half day. But only a fraction of parents decided to vote in the LSC election. And of course parents who met with their children's teachers on the half day weren't given the opportunity to vote then and there--they had to return the following day.

Boone's LSC election was hotly contested in 2000, with one slate of mostly incumbent candidates supporting the school's current course and a "reform slate," led by incumbent Richard Luboff, advocating Zavitkovsky's removal. Luboff had a long list of reasons why he thought Zavitkovsky shouldn't have been rehired when his contract expired in early 2000--it included everything from his own son breaking a leg on the Boone playground to alleged "incompetent management" and "financial misconduct." Luboff lost, as did all but one of the candidates on his slate. The losing candidates challenged the election on various grounds, including the fact that report-card pickup day had been split, which they claimed affected the election's outcome. CPS's law department assigned a hearing officer to the case, who determined that although Boone's scheduling an additional day of parent-teacher conferences constituted a "flagrant disregard" of election procedures, there was "insufficient basis upon which to recommend a new election."

But CPS decided to ignore the hearing officer's opinion, the only time it had done so in more than 70 election challenges between 1998 and 2000. Eva Nickolich, CPS's Regional Education Officer for Region 1, declared the Boone results void and ordered a new election.

"We decided to fight the decision," says Evelyn Asch, a parent of two kids at Boone and current chair of the LSC. Asch had already enlisted her brother as pro bono attorney for the winning candidates. Over the summer, while they waited for a decision from the courts, Asch and others formed something they called the "Parent-Teacher-Community Council" and started holding monthly public meetings to discuss issues that would otherwise have been taken up by the LSC. CPS's law department responded in October by ordering them to "cease and desist" from meeting, and the school was asked to submit minutes from the previous six months of LSC meetings so CPS officials could compare them to the agendas of the Parent-Teacher-Community Council meetings.

At the time Chris Brown, the father of two children at Boone and a member of the LSC for four years, declared, "I can't believe we're paying people to run around and investigate us for meeting as an illegal LSC. We're paying a lot of people to investigate this issue when there are schools out there where 4 percent of the kids are reading at national norms."

After four months, the court decided in favor of Asch, Brown, and the other successful candidates, saying that Nickolich's decision was "against the manifest weight of the evidence." But by that time Boone was swarming with CPS auditors--the school underwent audits of its bilingual education program and its special-education and internal funds. "Everything but how much toilet paper is on the roller has been audited," said Asch during the process. Most of the audits came out clean or turned up minor irregularities. "We even had the drug-education program audited," Asch marveled. "I mean, come on. The guy said, 'I don't know why they called me here--you're doing a good job.' It's like, 'Dammit, there's gotta be something here. We'll find it!'"

CPS hit the jackpot on its audit of Boone's discretionary funds, though their find hardly required an audit because the irregularity they discovered had been discussed and voted on in public. Boone made up something called "salary equalization pay," which it gave to its four office workers. "The basic principle is that the job titles for each of the people working in the office are different," explains Asch. "But we divide responsibilities equally. Given their job titles they'd be paid differently, but we felt that if we're asking people to assume equal responsibility they should receive equal pay." That kind of out-of-the-box thought borders on the subversive in a system where union-protected employees are paid based on a rigid formula of "lanes and steps." At Boone, a "school assistant" who would normally make less than $20,000 per year got more than $10,000 in equalization pay to make her salary equivalent to a clerk's.

Zavitkovsky says that when he arrived at Boone the school's office was a notoriously unresponsive, unfriendly place. He says the equal work, equal pay philosophy was intended to improve performance and cooperation in the office as well as service to parents and students. Zavitkovsky says it would have been impossible for him to simply hire four clerks and pay them all the same amount, because Boone is only authorized by the school board to hire two clerks. And there's a limited pool of people who have clerk certificates; he says he would never have been able to hire the workers he has, mostly parents of former students, each fluent in one of the major languages of the multilingual school--office staff speak English, Spanish, Assyrian, and Urdu. Zavitkovsky committed another infraction by keeping a trilingual teacher's assistant in the office rather than placing her in a classroom. He says he's trained parents making minimum wage to work in four bilingual classrooms--moving the teacher's assistant to those classrooms would mean he'd have to cut the parents. In this case, the single teacher's assistant would be replacing four parents, and in two of the bilingual classrooms she wouldn't understand the language.

"I know these regulations are all designed with good intentions," says Zavitkovsky. "But when you play them out in the particulars of a school locale and you implement them without being able to sand the edges, I think the spirit of the thing tends to get lost in the interpretation of the letter."

Asch says she's convinced CPS spent so much time investigating the school it simply couldn't come up empty-handed. Equalization pay "obviously proved to be a lot more important now than it ever seemed when we were looking at budgets," she says. "We knew people in the office were doing above and beyond what clerks in the office were normally expected to do. We give stipends to teachers who accept extra duties--it seemed a parallel situation."

Because this infraction violated state statutes and board rules, one person close to the investigation predicts CPS's law department will recommend that all other disciplinary measures be skipped and Zavitkovsky immediately dismissed.

Schools CEO Paul Vallas showed up at Boone's March LSC meeting. "I didn't come here to pull a principal," he told the packed auditorium, which included mostly Zavitkovsky supporters, many of them faculty members, but also a few parents upset over largely unrelated matters.

"Clearly some action is going to be in order," said Vallas in the type of ambiguous language that punctuated the meeting. "There are clearly some financial issues that have been validated by our auditors. I'm going to get feedback from the council before making a final decision." He didn't shut any doors: "I can disagree with the council's recommendation and choose to ignore it."

"This school is going to continue to perform no matter who's running it," said Vallas. Ironically, even some of Zavitkovsky's detractors admit that he's managed to create a school that provides a top-notch education. "He hires teachers who are going to work hard," says one staff member who assisted in CPS's investigations. "It's not unusual for them to work until seven, eight, or nine o'clock at night." Zavitkovsky himself is often at Boone until after dark and on weekends.

His problem, says the staff member, is that he doesn't like to follow procedures. "Mr. Z simply does what makes sense. Every principal, in all honesty, should be able to do that. You know what's going to make your school succeed. For example, schools really should provide somebody for each language in the office. But if the board does not provide it, and you try to implement it, then you have a problem.

"If he was a probation school principal, he would have been gone," says the staff member. "His scores, all of the awards, the grants, all of the accolades--that's what makes him look good. It's there. What can I say? But there are procedures. Zavitkovsky doesn't believe in following procedures. He likes to do things his way. And that is where the board and Zavitkovsky have a conflict."

Just how far "outside of the box" can educators go when the central office seems increasingly intent on enforcing decrees, when principals are bound by strict regulations that control everything from where they can place teachers to how hard they can make those teachers work? Last month Boone was put on a list of schools set to have their reading programs dictated by the central administration--an honor supposedly reserved for the system's 200 worst-performing schools. "Every time I say 'I can't imagine what could be next' they think of something," says Asch. "We were completely floored by being put on that list. We should be a model school, not one put on remediation." Boone has since been removed from the list; CPS representatives told LSC members it was a mistake.

Lighting the fire under CPS investigators has been Richard Luboff, the incumbent LSC member who organized the "reform slate" of candidates and then challenged the election. Luboff has opposed Zavitkovsky since being elected to the council in 1998. (Oddly, Luboff had been elected on the same type of split report-card pickup day that he challenged this time around, and as a council member he raised no objections when the issue of the split report-card pickup was debated prior to the 2000 election.) Luboff charges Zavitkovsky with "mismanagement and misbehavior." He's sent letters to Vallas, Alderman Berny Stone, and school board president Gery Chico. In these letters he mentions the principal's "nudity on field trips with our adolescent and pre adolescent boys" (Zavitkovsky changed clothes in the boys' locker room during a field trip to a YMCA pool), his "intimidation of teachers" (though 60 out of 87 staff and faculty members recently presented Vallas with a letter supporting Zavitkovsky--Luboff alleges they were coerced into signing), and his orchestrating "a scheme to improperly transfer funds specifically identified for education (such as Chapter I funds) and use them to support political payments to members of the Boone faculty and staff."

Luboff says Boone's rising test scores mean little, because most schools in Chicago have seen rising test scores and Boone is better off than most. He even disputes CPS's calculation that 63 percent of Boone's students are low income (citywide the average is 85 percent), thus qualifying for free or reduced-price lunches. "Many of the families who qualify would not qualify if there were thorough examinations," he says. Luboff had two sons at Boone--the elder graduated, while the other transferred to another school shortly after Luboff lost the LSC election. Asked if his own children didn't benefit from a strong education at Boone, he says, "My kid could learn math from Attila the Hun." Luboff never brought up objections to equalization pay for office workers while he was on the LSC, but he claims that was because budgets were railroaded through at the end of meetings and that equalization pay was buried under hundreds of budget items--all part of a conspiracy, he says, on the part of Zavitkovsky.

Luboff admits that investigating the inner workings of Boone School has taken up a significant amount of time over the past two years. "I recently sold a successful business in nuclear medicine products, so I had the luxury of time and no great need for money," he says. People fall for Zavitkovsky's "education speak," says Luboff, because "he can be a very ingratiating and charming fellow when he wants you to look favorably on him." Luboff claims he has briefcases full of documents that prove his allegations. ("Joe McCarthy carried around briefcases of evidence too," counters Asch.)

The allegations have fallen on fertile ground within CPS. Luboff has had multiple meetings with investigators and attorneys, but his biggest supporter has been Michael Mahone, chief investigator for the Office of School and Community Relations. According to CPS, Mahone and one other investigator handle about 250 cases per year. Mahone has no background in education--he's a retired Arkansas state police investigator whose biggest claim to fame is that he once arrested Bill Clinton's brother, Roger. Mahone urged CPS to ignore the findings of the initial hearing officer and to overturn Boone's LSC election. He also ordered the audits. While he refused to talk for this story, he recommended getting information directly from the source of the allegations--Luboff.

Luboff says school officials have "implied" that Zavitkovsky will be offered two options: take early retirement to protect his pension, or fight to have the school board honor his contract. Either way, Luboff says, he's optimistic Boone will have a new principal come fall. Now he plans to target Asch, Brown, and the other LSC members who support Zavitkovsky. "The members of the council are the ones who've been working hand in glove with Paul for the last half-dozen years," says Luboff. "They're still on the council, and their behavior has been just as improper as his."

Zavitkovsky's supporters concede he's not a perfect principal. He's behind on paperwork, including teacher evaluations, something Asch says the LSC has put him on notice about. There are some teachers who clearly don't approve of his leadership style and some of the instructional methods implemented at the school, but "there are workers discontented with their bosses in every job," says Asch.

CPS hasn't issued its formal ruling yet, and Vallas hasn't asked for the opinions of LSC members, as he promised he would before making a final decision. According to Asch, the LSC had to pester CPS to get a summary of its findings from the year's worth of audits and investigations at Boone--and then they were handed only a single sheet of paper. "There was little new in what they brought to us," says Asch, who can't comment further on the findings because they were presented in a closed session of the council. But she says there was nothing presented "that justifies firing someone as creative and successful an educator as this man is. Even if he weren't creative and successful--even if he were just average--there's just nothing there." Asch says the council is not looking for a new principal.

Zavitkovsky, who has a master's degree in reading and language acquisition, worked as a teacher before becoming a principal. After five years overseeing a middle school in suburban Milwaukee, he moved to Chicago specifically for the opportunity to become a principal under the new climate of autonomy school reform here promised. He's had other job offers in the past, including one from Edison Schools, the private manager of public schools that CPS has considered bringing in to take over a handful of schools. He says he's accomplished much of what he set out to do at Boone. "We've done what the legislature had in mind in 1988 when they created the school reform law," he says. "We have taken control of our school community, redesigned the expectations of the school, and turned a school that was declining into a school that's very successful." There are still problems, says Zavitkovsky, "but the vector is forward."

What bothers him most about all the investigations, he says, is what they signify for the system as a whole. "I think there's a sense that tightening up on controls--much tighter procedural, technical, mechanical accountability in all areas of the system from the central office--is the mechanism that holds the greatest amount of promise for continuing to improve student performance within the system." That may be the answer for some schools, says Zavitkovsky, but for a school like Boone "that trend toward micromanagement does not bode well. What it boils down to is a dramatic reduction in the latitude and autonomy that teachers and managers at the school site can have over how their time gets used and where their curricular and instructional priorities are.

"We did exercise a heck of a lot of latitude," he acknowledges, "always in the spirit of educating the kids and in squeezing as much out of $4,100 per kid as we could. We've worked very hard to be creative here."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Robert Drea.

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