North Lawndale residents resist further school privatization

April 3, 2014

A banner hangs in the Dvorak Elementary School gymnasium where parents, students and community members gathered to oppose CPS’s proposed school turnaround.

Chicago Public Schools has talked a lot about providing families high-quality school options in their neighborhoods, but for residents of one West Side community, it feels like one option is slowly being eliminated.

Parents, students and community activists crowded into the gym at Dvorak Elementary in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood to oppose the district’s plan to have the non-profit Academy for Urban School Leadership turn around the school. One the parents’ complaints: AUSL already operates four schools in the neighborhood.

“At least give us one school in the community where AUSL don’t have to take over,” Candace Stigler shouted in the school’s gym.

In the first year of a school “turnaround” all staff--from principals to janitors--are fired and a new staff, curriculum and rules are put into place. AUSL has been doing school turnarounds for the district since 2006. The turnaround strategy was initially billed as a temporary strategy to change the trajectory of low-performing schools. But CPS has renewed all of AUSL’s five-year contracts, effectively leaving them under private management. 

AUSL currently runs 29 schools across Chicago; its four in North Lawndale include Herzl Elementary, two blocks north of Dvorak, Johnson Elementary, Collins Academy High School and Chalmers Elementary. All are located in and around Douglas Park.

Though AUSL schools are privately managed, they still have neighborhood boundaries and unionized teachers. But parent volunteer Rene Jackson said she sees a bigger effort to privatize all the schools in North Lawndale.

“All these are privatized schools, these charter schools and all these,” Jackson said, signaling down 16th street to the west, where a KIPP charter school is now located, then to the north, toward a LEARN charter school, and finally to the east, where Catalyst-Howland charter school operates.

“[Dvorak] is a school that’s going to accept anybody and everybody, whether you blue, purple, green, or black,” Jackson said. According to the most recent available data, Dvorak’s student population is 16 percent special education, 13 percent are homeless and 99 percent are low-income.

Jackson also noted that Dvorak took in students from the four nearby grammar schools that closed last year, including, Bethune, which was, ironically, run by AUSL. A WBEZ analysis last fall showed 39 students from closed schools ended up at Dvorak, but the school did not get the same extra money that the district’s designated “welcoming schools” did. In fact, two designated “welcoming schools” in North Lawndale enrolled the fewest students from their closing counterparts. Johnson School of Excellence, also run by AUSL, enrolled just 34 kids, or 23.4 percent, of the students from now-closed Pope Elementary, but still got millions of dollars in improvements, like air conditioning and iPads.

Still, CPS says Dvorak and the two other schools it wants AUSL to take over next year--McNair Elementary in Austin and Gresham Elementary in Auburn-Gresham--have been chronically underperforming.

Dvorak parents don’t disagree.

“I can not argue the fact that our scores are low,” said Angela Gordon, president of Dvorak’s Local School Council. “That’s a fact. However, I can say if we had the same resources that you’re going to give AUSL…then I believe in my heart that, yes, we can move scores, but we can’t move scores if we constantly have to cut positions. We can’t work the literacy lab because we can’t hire a teacher because there’s no money.”

Dvorak lost $128,791 and three positions over the summer, according to CPS budget documents.

LSC President Gordon said the community is not opposed to a turnaround at the school, but they want to be involved in deciding who manages it and they don’t want to be shut out of the process. Local elected officials echoed that sentiment. 

“I am greatly disappointed with CPS and the Chicago Board of Education regarding this process and lack of community input in making these types of critical educational decisions,” said Ald. Michael Chandler (24th), noting he found out from a CPS representative “via only a phone call” less than a day before it was announced to the public.

State Rep. Arthur Turner (D-9th District), and a representative from Congressman Danny Davis’s office also attended the meeting to oppose the turnaround.

But community members and parents seeking an alternative to an AUSL turnaround may be out of luck. Right now, AUSL is the only group doing turnarounds for CPS. The district’s now-defunct Office of School Improvement handled some school turnarounds, but in 2011, then-CEO Jean-Claude Brizard said the district would stop managing its own turnarounds and bring in more outside operators, but that has not happened.

The Chicago Board of Education is expected to vote on the three turnaround proposals later this month.

Becky Vevea is a producer for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.