“We worry more about our students now more than we ever have in the past.”
Since the latest Chicago Public Schools “reform” efforts began in 1996, Orr Academy High School in the West Side’s Garfield Park neighborhood has been subjected to nearly every faddish attempt the corporate reformists have to offer. It has been reconstituted, reengineered, intervened, broken up into “small schools,” and combined into one large school all over again. The Academy of Urban School Leadership (AUSL) has managed this newest iteration since the 2008-09 school year.
When it took control of the school, AUSL promised an increase in student achievement, strong involvement with the community, and a new school culture—but the changes it has delivered are criminally short of these ideals. Some Orr teachers, worried for the safety and future of their students, shared their experiences with the Occupied Chicago Tribune. The picture they paint of the school is gruesome—complete chaos in the hallways, blatant sexual assault against female students and staff, open drug use by students in the lunchroom, bigotry so severe that LGBT students have stopped attending school, and the falling test scores and attendance rates that one would expect amid such havoc.
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Their stories come on the eve of the school board’s vote for the 17 proposed school closings and turnarounds. If the proposals pass, AUSL will add six more schools to the 12 it currently manages. For the job security of these teachers, their identities will remain anonymous.
OCT: Let’s start at the beginning. What were some of the promises that AUSL made when it first took control?
Teacher 1: We were supposed to have a lot of guidance counselors, social workers, community partners, administrators that would be involved in kids’ lives, student advocates that would be in the community meeting with people, and it was never fulfilled to the extent that it was promised. In the first two years, they came a lot closer than they’ve come recently. At least I would say the administration that was in place those first two years really seemed to believe those things, at least that those things were important.
OCT: How has the administration changed?
T1: We’ve been through 15 administrators in three-and-a-half years, including principals, assistant principals, and directors of operation. In the middle of the last school year, our principal left. Our new principal [Tyese Sims—Ed.] was put in place. She brought with her two new assistant principals and removed our old assistant principals and directors. Since then, she has replaced one of the assistant principals she brought in last year and replaced her with a new one at the beginning of this year. So it’s constant turnover. And, there’s no real continuity in terms of initiatives, mission, vision, philosophy within the school…
Teacher 2: … And there’s no increasing of experience level with new people brought in.
OCT: What effect has this new principal and administration had on the school?
T2: There was a big problem with our graduation last year, when about 90 students graduated who shouldn’t have graduated. They were handed a diploma, but they had not fulfilled their requirements. Universities started calling and asking if the students forged their diplomas because the transcripts didn’t match.
OCT: Was this an honest oversight, or is this to be able to say they graduated more students?
T1: I think it’s honest incompetence.
T2: The problem is they haven’t tried to correct it.
T1: A lot of the reason it occurred was because of the turnaround. There were three small schools with different curricula, different sequences of classes, different course offerings, and they were all combined into one school and things got lost in the shuffle. It definitely happened under the watch of the new administration, but I think it was more of a case of AUSL mismanagement and lack of oversight. Before you even start new classes, you should make sure that everybody has what they should have.
OCT: Are the 90 supposed graduates just out in the world? Has the school done any outreach to try to find them and get them back into classes?
T2: A lot of [the students] don’t even know. It’s horrendous. They let some of them know when the students or parents come in to check.
OCT: What about the AUSL management that’s supposed to oversee this administration?
T2: After the turnaround, the first and second years, they were there all the time…
T1: The director of high schools was in the hallway with a stopwatch, seeing how long it would take students to get into classes. But as they continue to expand, the level of attention and oversight they can provide decreases for each school they oversee… A Local School Council would only have oversight for one school, whereas with AUSL, there’s one person in charge of high schools. And they’re divided between every school.
OCT: What effects has this lack of management or mismanagement had on the school?
T2: Our discipline system is a disaster. A disaster. They got rid of the tardy policy. So there’s been a steady increase in the number of students lingering in the halls, roaming around, not going to class… Because they’re kids, and they’ll get away with whatever you let them. There’s been an astronomical increase in the number of fights… kids jumped in the halls, robbed of iPods and wallets. And teachers have been constantly trying to get the principal to reverse this policy, but she said, “Tardiness is a battle you can’t win.” Then, all of a sudden, one day, she announces over the speaker system that she’s tired of getting emails from the teachers about there being no tardy policy, so she just started suspending everybody she found in the halls.
T1: … Or even just telling students to leave the building, without any paper work.
T2: They call it “Grab your coat day”. They even had a sign up that said, “Get your coat day.” They just swept everybody, whether they were allowed to be in the hallway or not. I saw a parent come in, and [the administrators] told the parent that the teacher should have known better.
OCT: How many days like this have there been?
T1: The administration didn’t really do anything between October 28 and the beginning of February. It was pretty much just complete chaos, with teachers and security doing the best they could to maintain order, without any support from the administration.
T2: Now, just for the last couple of weeks, they’ve been hall sweeping. But they’re not even sweeping every period. They’re just doing it two times a day.
OCT: What days specifically were “grab your coat days”?
T1: Last Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. There were two days when AUSL did actually come to the building, on a tour with representatives from other school districts, and our administration panicked. The people from other school districts were coming to see the vaunted AUSL model that would transform education in America. And they see our school…
OCT: What other effects has this lack of true discipline had?
T2: We have had multiple weeks this year where there were more fights in one week than there had been in the two previous years. Kids have been smoking marijuana in the lunchroom … during lunch. Smoking cigarettes in the hall. It’s gone haywire. It’s gone insane. … Our enrollment has plummeted in the last year.
T1: Some students have sort of self-selected out of the school, dropped out or transferred elsewhere. Some students have dropped out because it’s just too stressful.
T2: … Or they just keep getting suspended.
T1: How do we set them up for a life as a successful functioning adult, if we just toss them out of school again and again and again? So, eventually, they just stop coming back.
T2: We had over 900 [students] a year ago, and we’re down to about 700 now. And of those 700, only about 50 percent to 55 percent are showing up… And before the turnaround, there were a lot more kids [Close to 1100—Ed.] … We used to have a lot more community partners in the building, to help the kids. Different social service agencies… Youth Guidance… Cease Fire… Options for Youth.
OCT: Was AUSL doing more outreach when they initially took over the school?
T1: It seemed like the mission of AUSL at the time, I think they did believe in a lot of the stuff they were saying, but it almost feels like they just pulled out way too soon, and they’re not even a presence in our school anymore, or in the community at all. A lot of our kids don’t even know what AUSL means.
OCT: Have students been pushed out?
T1: We have dropped a lot of students. There’s a certain period of time where if a student doesn’t show up at school, you can drop them off of your roster, but you have to make phone calls and send letters home every so often, and if then they hit a certain amount of days in a row of being absent, you can take them off your roster. And we haven’t [followed that procedure]. The administration has chosen certain students for behavioral reasons, and they’ve just dropped them, with no due process.
T2: I went to the attendance office to get a copy of one of those letters for a student, and they couldn’t produce it.
T1: And it’s illegal to do that. So a lot of students will come back with a parent, and the school will legally have to re-enroll them, which they will, but often with a schedule that is incorrect, or with a completely different schedule from what they had had previously
OCT: What is the cumulative effect of all of this on the students?
T1: Just from the beginning of this year to this time now I’ve seen an overall decline in my students’ ability to just be a student. … And our test scores are actually going down this year.
T2: I had a student who had a 19 that went down to a 14 on the ACT. And you don’t get five points dumber. That’s all about what’s going on the student’s personal life, and the chaos that’s going on in the school.
T1: We administer three practice ACTs throughout the year. At the beginning of February, our average score was a 13. Last year, our final average was a 14.9. If we’re going to gain 1.9 points in two months… I mean, it’s going be tough to do, especially considering where we were at this point last year. I don’t remember the exact numbers, but it was definitely higher than 13.
T2: And they’re getting rid of the literacy programs.
T1: That also comes into how AUSL has no oversight or management over our school. AUSL has a literacy expert who has created literacy programs for students that determines the grade level they’re reading at when they enter high school. … These literacy programs that are research-based and have shown themselves to be successful. We’ve been implementing them for the last two years, but our administration doesn’t like the idea of a ninth grader reading fifth grade material, even if they can only read at a fifth grade level. So they’ll be reading Romeo and Juliet, even though they have trouble reading [easier books]. And AUSL hasn’t done anything about it, even though our teachers have reached out to them directly, to the literacy specialist and the director of curriculum. … So if AUSL doesn’t have oversight over our school, who does?
T2: … The special ed population has dropped by more than 30 percent. There used to be over 300, and now we’re under 200. I’m not sure where they’re going, but they’re leaving.
T1: Whether they are dropping out or being counseled out [to alternative schools], either way they’re not being supported and they’re not succeeding at this school.
T2: I actually had a conversation with a student yesterday, and he was telling me that he thought the school was better with Mr. Poole [The previous, and original turnaround, principal—Ed.]
T1: I’ve had a lot of students say the exact same thing.
T2: The students have recognized that there’s chaos and that the school’s not functioning.
OCT: I’m sure that despite these stories, there are plenty of kids who want to learn, and don’t want to be roaming the halls.
T2: I think even the ones who are running around the halls, if you ask them what they needed, they’ll tell you they need rules and structure. I think all of them, given the opportunity and the setting, would do what they need to do. Because they show up everyday. The kids who truly don’t care about education don’t come.
T1: What bothers me the most is that you see an effect on the students who are in class on time and generally behave themselves. I’m starting to see them slip, which really worries me. They’re coming to school less, starting to be late for class more.
T2: … Getting in school suspensions.
T1: This toxic atmosphere is even starting to affect them. They have to deal with so much crap from other students in the hallways, like girls constantly being sexually harassed… just out-rightly groped. I’ve written up boys for doing it and nothing, nothing, has happened. No suspensions.
T2: It happened to a teacher as well, and they made her allow the student back into her class.
OCT: How often does this happen?
T2: To the students? Every period. Every single day. All day long.
T1: It’s almost not even worth taking the time to document it anymore, because nothing will be done. The best we can do is to defend the girls as well as we can when we see it happen… So ultimately, these students who would be great students start to become not so great because they’re under so much stress. It’s not a safe environment, and it doesn’t feel safe.
T2: The GLBT group no longer meets because the kids really aren’t there, or don’t want to identify themselves.
T1: A lot of the GLBT kids who were open about it have stopped coming to schools. I know at least five students who I would see everyday, and I do not see them anymore. When the environment becomes this hostile towards everybody, the diversity leaves. There’s only now two groups of students—the ones in the hallways and the ones in the classrooms—instead of last year and the year before when you’d see all these different groups of students.
T2: The emo kids…
T1: … The artists, the musicians. … And now it’s just the kids in the hallway and the kids in the classroom.
OCT: I imagined this conversation was going to be depressing, but it’s far more depressing than I even thought it was going to be.
T2: That’s why we’re saying something, because it’s gotten so bad.
T1: And we worry more about our students now more than we ever have in the past.
OCT: Do you extend that worry to the students of the six schools on the turnaround list that will likely be handed over to AUSL?
T1: When AUSL has complete control over schools, and there’s no mechanism in place for oversight and raising objections or concerns about what is happening, it’s going to keep being the same thing—they’ll move into a school, establish a large presence for maybe a year or two, and then move out and on to the next batch of sick schools.
OCT: Would you go so far as to say that you don’t want AUSL to take over other schools?
T1: I don’t see what AUSL is providing that CPS couldn’t provide. I mean, CPS could choose mediocre and poor administrators as well, but I think they could also choose good ones. And at least if there was an LSC in place in a school, there would be a forum to communicate directly with that administration and provide some oversight for it. … I think AUSL trains teachers really well. They also do a good job of focusing on instructional practices for teachers. And I think they could find a way to do that for schools without needing the completely unchecked power and control over that school.