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A Troubled High School Celebrates a Milestone

Ohanian Note: Here's an up close and personal look at what Duncan-style reform does to teachers.

When I see an article in the New York Times about Chicago schools, I go to Substance reporter who covered the Austin Polytech firings and subsequent student protest.

Note below that the Times also quotes Lillian Kass.

Austin Polytech teacher joins students at Board meeting to protest firing of teachers... 'Witnessing the demise of my school'

[Editor's Note: The following is the prepared text of the statement by Lillian Kass, Teacher at Austin Polytechnical Academy which was delivered at the Chicago Board of Education meeting of May 25, 2011. It is reprinted here as provided to Substance by the writer.]

by Lillian Kass

Academy has the best staff I have ever worked with, and yet a quarter of our teachers are non-renewed, most of them placed on the Do Not Hire list. I am lucky to have my contract renewed and to be returning to APA in the fall. However, I do so in dismay because I will have to witness the demise of my school as a result of these firings. Research shows that high teacher turnover leads to increased drop-out rates and decreased attendance rates, grades, test scores, and graduation rates.

This action was taken by an interim principal, in his first and only year in our school, his first and only year in CPS, and his first and only year in Chicago. An administrator who is only here for one year should not be determining the permanent fate of teachersâ careers. Four of these positions were filled before they were opened â contracts were signed with Teach for America in March, two months before teachers were notified that they were being terminated. This is a blatant breach of contract. Replacing dedicated teachers in their third year of teaching, just as they are hitting their stride and becoming better teachers, with inexperienced people who are not committed to the profession for more than two years is an outrage. This is an act that undermines the stability of our school and is detrimental to our studentsâ lives and education.

As a result, good teachers who are dedicating their lives to the future of Chicago can never work with our students â or any CPS students â ever again. This includes teachers who have consistently put in extended hours, even coming in on Saturdays for Saturday school and field trips. They have used their preparation time to work extensively with students one-on-one and in small groups. One of the teachers has taught a number of students to read. Six of the seven teachers are Science, Engineering, or Special Education teachers, who are extremely difficult to replace.

It is imperative the Board implements policies that will keep good teachers in the classroom, rather than pushing them out and driving them away. It is in the best interest of our students and our school to reverse this decision, and retain the teachers that have already committed themselves to the students and community at Austin, so we can, as a united staff, educate our students and prepare them for their future.

We demand that this decision be overturned.

Picture Caption: Even though he was principal of Austin Polytech for less than one year, Fabby Williams was allowed by the Chicago Board of Education to fire a quarter of the school's teachers. Two months before he fired the Chicago teachers at Austin Polytech, Williams agreed to become principal of Valley View High School in Bolingbrook, Illinois. Sources at the school charge that Williams agreed to hire three Teach for America teachers in March 2011 and fired the incumbent teachers to make openings for the TFA people.

A Troubled High School Celebrates a Milestone

By Meribah Knight
New York Times

Standing in the hallway of Austin Polytech, Stran'Ja Burge, 18, adjusted her burgundy graduation cap and shifted her weight restlessly from one foot to the other. Her four-year-old high school was about to graduate its first senior class, but for Ms. Burge, the end of high school had still not registered.

"It hasn't hit me yet," she said, carefully clasping her hands a few inches from her waist so as not to wrinkle her gown.

Austin Polytechnical Academy opened on the West Side of Chicago in 2007 as the city's first and only career academy dedicated to occupations in high-skill manufacturing. On June 12, the school sent its first 92 graduates into that understaffed job market, many with industry-recognized credentials, internship experience and more than three years of engineering classes on their transcripts.

The school, developed as part of the Renaissance 2010 initiative by Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, then chief executive of Chicago Public Schools, aims to prepare students to fill some of the nation's estimated three million vacant positions in science, technology, engineering and math. The ambitious plan seeks to engage private-industry companies to help train the students, all of them from a community that has watched local industry flee, unemployment climb and foreclosure rates soar to the highest in the city.

Where graduates go from here -- work force or college, inside or outside the community -- will be a test of achievement for Austin Polytech.

Since September, the Chicago News Cooperative has followed three students: Stran'Ja Burge and Marquiese Travae Booker, both seniors, and Deandre Joyce, a junior. In that time, the school has endured wrenching changes, many of them emblematic of a larger instability within C.P.S. as leaders seek to reform one of the countryâs largest and most troubled public school systems .

Two separate narratives about the school have emerged: one public and one private; one filled with success, the other fraught with troubles.

In the positive narrative, the Center for Labor and Community Research, a nonprofit organization, helped Austin Polytech obtain accreditation for its machine shop through the National Institute for Metalworking Skills, becoming the only high school in Illinois to earn that classification. The school also rolled out two job-shadowing programs, secured summer jobs and internships for 36 students, and saw 89 students earn 123 industry-recognized certificates.

But it was also a year of nearly constant fits and starts by the C.P.S. system, sapping energy from teachers, administrators and students. In October, school district officials placed Austin Polytech on probation for poor academic performance. In February, students learned that the interim principal would be leaving at the end of the school year. In March, C.P.S. backed off a plan to merge Austin with the Austin Business and Entrepreneurship Academy after a community uproar. In May, the principal fired seven teachers, nearly a quarter of Polytechâs teaching staff, prompting a flurry of union grievances, followed by a student walkout and sit-in that resulted in the suspension of 36 students. (The suspensions were later rescinded and stricken from the studentsâ records.)

Yet for students like Ms. Burge, who is ranked in the top 10 of her class, as well as for Mr. Joyce and Mr. Booker, much of the hurly-burly has been a sideshow to the usual rites of passage: college applications, ACTs, prom, final exams and future plans. The unrest at the school was more a nuisance than anything else, they said.

What comes next is different for each: Ms. Burge will attend college at the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff, where she will play basketball and pursue a degree in engineering. Mr. Booker landed a job at the Laystrom Manufacturing Company, where he interned last summer. Mr. Joyce hopes to stay on track during his senior year, raise his ACT score from an 18 to a 20, and then decide what will come next: college or work.

Despite the schoolâs tumultuous year, Ms. Burge said she had enjoyed her time at Austin Polytech. It gave her the opportunity to take advanced-placement calculus, travel to Washington on behalf of the school and participate in student government.

The home environment was tougher. Ms. Burge often waited until everyone in the house was asleep before cracking her books. After coming home, she would sleep from 5 p.m. until 10 p.m., then wake up and work on school assignments until 2 a.m. It was the only time the house was quiet, she said.

As she headed off to school a few days before the graduation ceremony, Ms. Burge walked by her uncle sleeping on the front porch. He struggles with addiction and her grandmother lets him sleep there, she said, adding that his example was an impetus to work harder.

âIâm not like âAw because my uncleâs a crackhead, then Iâm not going to go to school,â â she said last fall. âIâm going to do the reverse and because I see him do that, this is why Iâm going to school every day and this why Iâm going to college.â She is the first in her family to pursue college outside Illinois.

When Mr. Booker was not playing baseball or practicing with the bowling team, he spent the year working at Haroldâs Chicken and trying to figure out what came next. Then an opportunity presented itself. Laystrom Manufacturing offered Mr. Booker a position, created just for him, in the quality control department. He took the job.

On graduation day, waiting in the hallway of Polytech in his cap and gown, a visitor asked him if he was excited about his new job. âYes,â he said, giving way to a big smile. âI really, really am.â

In the auditorium, Deandre Joyce, 18, looked on, expecting that next year, his senior year, he will be up on the stage. His junior year went well enough, he said, though there were rough spots. He was kicked off the basketball team after a disagreement with his coach. His grades. he said, foundered after he and his grandmother were forced out of their apartment because of flood damage. In the winter, his two front teeth were knocked out after he was elbowed in the jaw in a pickup basketball game.

âAll I want for Christmas are my two front teeth,â he said he sang to the doctor as he was fitted for false ones.

The spring protest over the teachersâ firing was a highlight of his year, Mr. Joyce said. He was among the 36 students suspended for participating in the walkout and sit-in. âOur voices can be heard,â he said. âThere is power in numbers.â

As the seniors crossed the stage to receive their diplomas, they danced, dipping, shaking, pumping their fists victoriously. When Mr. Bookerâs name was called, he pulled a pair of guitar-shaped sunglasses out of his pocket, put them on and shimmied across the stage to shake the principalâs hand. Ms. Burge danced across the stage as her family cheered her on.

Outside after the ceremony, students received congratulatory hugs and posed for photographs with family and friends. At the end of the street, Police Officer Brian Tierney, a neighborhood beat officer, parked his cruiser in the middle of the street.

Mr. Tierney opened his door, turned on his public address system and offered the students some parting words.

âCongratulations,â he said. âNow, do the right thing.â


— Lillian Kass and Meribah Knight
Substance and New York Times





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