Firing Everyone, Even the Lunch Ladies, to Fix Failing Schools

July 28, 2010

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Of Deneen's seven lunch ladies, six re-applied for their jobs. One got her position back. (WBEZ/Linda Lutton)

In Chicago, dozens of lunch ladies are leaving the schools they've worked at—sometimes for years. That's because those schools are being “turned around”—a strategy that involves removing the entire staff at failing schools to “reset” the culture there. It's a strategy Education Secretary Arne Duncan is now pushing nationwide. WBEZ examines whether it's necessary to remove lunch ladies, janitors, and security guards to create better schools.

In mid-June, the lunch ladies at Deneen Elementary School on the city's south side were serving up one of their last meals.

LUNCH LADY: How are you? What do you want? Carrots or salad?

Fewer than half of kids meet standards here on state tests, so Deneen is being forced to start over. As a “turnaround,” every adult has to leave, from the principal to the teachers to the seven lunch ladies. Veronica Fulth was Deneen's cook. After insisting I put on a hair net, she gave me a tour of her spotless kitchen.

FULTH: These are ovens. This is a steamer. This is just a real powerful microwave.
 
Fulth remembers what she felt when she found out she'd be losing her position.

FULTH: I thought it was unfair. Because I was told it was based on the student's academics. In which we have no control over that. We control the food. And we shouldn't have been involved. We're not in any classrooms, we're in the lunchroom.

CAWLEY: Clearly it starts in the classroom and the instruction.
 
Tim Cawley says if you want to improve learning, you need a culture that fosters that everywhere in the school. Cawley is with the Academy for Urban School Leadership, or AUSL. The group runs a dozen Chicago Public School turnarounds. They took over Deneen this month.

CAWLEY: One of the most important things to be successful in a turnaround, is to truly have a fresh start at the school, an opportunity to create a brand-new culture in a new environment. And it's important to be able to have the flexibility to do that from top to bottom in the school.

Culture has been called the “secret sauce” of school improvement. It has to do with how people relate to each other: how kids carry themselves in the hallways, whether they respect adults in the school, whether teachers collaborate and whether they truly believe kids can learn. And proponents of turnaround say culture is a key reason other school reforms have failed. Money and training can disappear into a dysfunctional culture, they say. Deneen's lunch ladies know, in a turnaround the best employees are removed right along with the worst. But still they struggle with losing a job they thought they were good at.

LUNCH LADY: Some of them don't want carrots—carrots is good for your eyes! We tell them that. When they're coming through here and they're not behaving like they should, we will say something to them. I mean, we passed the inspections, passed with flying colors. We always get an A.

KIDS: Cheese pizza, please! Cheese pizza, please!

Muneerah Choice says she knows she plays an important role in kids' education—even if she is just the lunch lady.

CHOICE: You don't have to be a teacher to affect a child's life. I've had kids to come to me that can't talk to their teachers. They talk about issues or whatever. As far as nutrition, we try to have them to eat good because you never know. This may be a person's only meal, last meal—you never know.

LUNCH LADY: Oh you want that big piece! All right, enjoy.

At Deneen, kids move through the lunch line and sit down in the bright, air-conditioned cafeteria. That's where security guard Thornell Hunter is wiping tables and talking with kids. Hunter has been at Deneen for 20 years—he calls every kid by name, he knew some of their parents when they were kids.

STUDENT: Mr. Hunter!
STUDENT: The only team they're probably not going to beat is the Lakers.
HUNTER: They're going to beat the Lakers, Antonio! They're gonna beat the Lakers!

People like Mr. Hunter are at the very heart of the argument against removing all staff at a school. Getting rid of Hunter means losing deep connections to families and students. For kids, it means finding someone else to talk to about the Bulls—or anything else important.

HUNTER: You know who I think they're gonna have instead of Dwyane Wade? Chris Bosh!
STUDENTS: Yeah!!!

For years, Hunter was the first person kids saw when they came in the front door. But Hunter didn't reapply for his job; he says he doesn't want to work for the outside management group now running Deneen. Turnarounds leave many ousted staff bitter. AUSL can re-hire teachers and some support staff, but they rarely bring back more than a few.

COHEN: Having some core of individuals who know the history of the school, who know the student body, who know the families and who know the community—that makes a big difference.

Justin Cohen is with Mass Insight Education. That's a Boston-based nonprofit that will be helping districts across the country do their own turnarounds. He says there's a flip side to rehiring staff.

COHEN: If you have too deep a connection to the prior culture it's very easy to get pulled into doing things in the same way.

AUSL points to improved test scores as evidence that the clean-slate strategy works. And the U.S. Department of Education is now offering millions in grant money to failing schools nationwide who want to try this same fix.

Verlicia Shegog was in charge of washing the trays at Deneen. Shegog has put in17 years with the district and makes $12.58 an hour. She lives nearby and re-applied for her job at Deneen. She didn't get it. But just like her dismissal, it had nothing to do with her job performance. That's because Deneen's new cooks and dishwashers and servers were assigned to the school the way they are to every school—by seniority in the district's food service program. Deneen's new lunchroom ladies might be coming from low-performing schools too. It maddens Shegog.

SHEGOG: They're just like us. They're coming from other schools, so they're not gonna come here and do a better job than us. They're gonna do the same thing we're doing.

Ironically, as Deneen's lunch ladies look for other positions around the system, they could end up at another turnaround school. Then they would be the new staff, expected to serve up better school culture and higher test scores along with the carrots.