Several hundred parents crowded into a school gym Monday evening, most there to call on Chicago Public Schools to reinstate a principal leading two Near North Side schools through a controversial merger.
In September, Ogden International, a racially-mixed elementary school with a mostly affluent student body, combined with Jenner Academy of the Arts, whose students were mostly low-income and black. Such a merger is unique and potentially a model for other schools to follow, with many watching to see if it can be done successfully.
The meeting was called after the principal of the combined Ogden-Jenner school, Michael Beyer, was abruptly removed from his position last Thursday and replaced with an acting principal. School district officials said they are starting dismissal proceedings after CPS Inspector General Nick Schuler recommended his firing.
The inspector general found Beyer had falsified attendance records. Beyer declined comment when reached by WBEZ. His wife, Mary, attended the meeting. She said her husband stayed away to “respect the process,” but that he was devastated.
Some parents said they were pleased Beyer was replaced, citing problems with him unrelated to the inspector general’s report. But most speakers Monday night supported Beyer, including Ald. Walter Burnett, whose 27th ward includes the Jenner campus of the combined school.
“This doesn’t make any sense,” Burnett said of Beyer’s removal. “As hard as he fought to bring these schools together, I would hope that he would fight for his job.”
Many parents said it was a mistake to remove Beyer so soon after the merger. Sarah Anderson said Ogden has had several principals since 2002, when her oldest child started at the school.
“Now, once again, we are being asked to accept yet another new administrator and start over again, in so many ways, in the midst of a very pivotal and fragile merger,” she said. “I am not confident that our community can take this pressure and this tension once again.”
Many at the meeting said they had been circumspect about the merger, but they stayed at the school and supported it because of Beyer. Nora Hansen said Beyer convinced parents “that it was a good thing, and a right thing to do, and [he] made us feel comfortable. By taking our leader who is stable at this time is a huge mistake,” she said.
The inspector general’s findings
Others said they didn’t think the wrongdoing outlined in Schuler’s report warranted the recommendation that be fired.
The inspector general found students marked as “out-of-district transfers” or “transfer to homeschool” when they were actually absent for an extended period of time. Beyer was told these students should be marked absent, and he admitted he knew the policy, according to Schuler’s report.
Yet he failed to tell staff to stop the practice and continued to “encourage it,” according to the report.
Many parents at the meeting said the problem was with the policy, not with Beyer. They said the school district should not have such steep consequences for missing school, including hurting a school’s academic rating. And they argue their Gold Coast school is unique because it has many international families who travel back home to see family.
At least one parent said she decided to unenroll her child, rather than have him get 10 days of unexcused absences. David Hundley said his son missed several days to visit his wife’s family in Ireland. He said he did not know that unenrolling was a possibility and so “I called him in sick.”
“But I am glad that someone finally brought up the CPS policy,” Hundley said. “I think this is a great opportunity to talk about the unattainable standard that administrators are trying to achieve, which has absolutely nothing to do with the quality of what is happening in the school.”
Earlier in the day, Schuler defended his report. He said the school district needs to send a message to administrators that fudging attendance numbers won’t be tolerated.
“There has been a steady drumbeat of the falsification of data,” he said of data issues that have cropped up at a range of schools over the years. Schuler pointed out that his office has consistently recommended firing in these cases, but only this year have school district officials heeded those suggestions. CPS CEO Janice Jackson took over in January.
The school district official said Beyer can fight the dismissal action against him in confidential personnel proceedings.