Did CPS let building go to pot before ‘turnaround’?

Chicago Public Schools isn’t letting the public see inside Herzl Elementary

February 22, 2012

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The Chicago Board of Education on Wednesday is scheduled to vote on proposals to close or completely restaff 17 schools. That would make more than 100 the district has shut down or restaffed in the last decade. School officials say their approach gives students in poorly performing schools more options. But there’s an old accusation that the district lets some school buildings go to pot until just before turning them over to private management groups. From our West Side bureau, we look at a school where parents and teachers are making that accusation.

MITCHELL: Lajuan Criswell’s daughter is a first-grader at Herzl Elementary, a school in Chicago’s North Lawndale neighborhood. Criswell’s mom teaches there. And Criswell herself serves on the Local School Council and volunteers after school twice a week. She says the building gets too hot in the winter — some days as high as 80 or 90 degrees. And Criswell says there are other problems.

CRISWELL: We don’t have air conditioning. The water fountains on some of the floors don’t function either. Some outlets — that look like they have perhaps had electrical fires at one point — they have the scorch marks. Paint and plaster that was peeling off for the last few years. And something with the plumbing so that the first floor has paint peeling off some of the ceilings.

MITCHELL: And don’t even get Criswell started on the building’s asbestos and lead. She says the problems have gone on awhile. The district is starting to send in more repair crews.

CRISWELL: But only because a new company is coming in, not because they really care about the safety or health of my child or anybody else’s child in that building.

MITCHELL: Because they’re going to have a private company come in and run the school.

CRISWELL: Exactly. That’s the driving force trying to fix it up.

MITCHELL: The private group will replace the entire staff. Chicago Public Schools calls that process a “turnaround.” Now, something Criswell doesn’t mention is that the Local School Council she serves on will have no control at Herzl if this turnaround proceeds. So you could say she’d have a motive to exaggerate about the building’s conditions. But there are lots of critics of the turnaround model. And many say district management has unspoken motives, too. Some of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s top CPS appointees came from AUSL, short for the Academy for Urban School Leadership. That’s the private group that would run the Herzl turnaround. Those officials include Tim Cawley, the district’s administrative chief. During a December call with reporters, Cawley acknowledged CPS avoids sinking money into buildings it might close within the next 10 years.

CAWLEY: We really believe the investment in the facility makes sense when it’s partnered with a program change. So, in going into those schools without a doing a more comprehensive change — just painting the walls and putting new lighting in and creating a more positive interior when nothing else has changed at the school — doesn’t get you the same return on the investment as it does when there’s a fresh start.

MITCHELL: By fresh start, he means the turnaround. And, again, in that phone call Cawley said CPS considers closing schools as long as 10 years ahead of time. If that’s the case, kindergarteners at some poor-performing schools might never see major building improvements before leaving for high school. So where has this approach left Herzl Elementary, a school on academic probation for years? I decided to check out the building myself. Last week I asked for a quick tour in a message to the school’s principal. Her name’s Teresa Anderson. I didn’t hear back, so I called again. And again. Tuesday, I went over to Herzl without an appointment.

MITCHELL: I’ve been calling since Thursday. She hasn’t been returning my calls. Taxpayers pay for this building. We’ve been hearing a lot about the conditions here and we want to see them.

STAFFER: She’s not available to speak right now.

MITCHELL: Is that her right there?

STAFFER: (Indecipherable).

MITCHELL: She was off the phone looking right at me just a minute ago. She can’t step out here to speak with me for five minutes?

STAFFER: No, she’s on a conference call right now.

MITCHELL: OK, I’ll wait until the end of her call.

STAFFER: OK.

MITCHELL: Principal Anderson eventually came out but said I could not look around the building and asked me to leave. The CPS central office backed her up. The district says Herzl building upgrades this summer will total about $9 million. If the school board approves the turnaround Wednesday, those improvements will be just in time for the arrival of private management.

WBEZ’s Linda Lutton contributed audio to this story.