Englewood STEM High School opened this fall as a beacon of hope that would replace four failing high schools and become a draw for local families.
And many on staff say the school is providing a supportive atmosphere for students that is flush with partnerships and activities for students.
But the Chicago Teachers Union has already filed two grievances against the principal on behalf of teachers. One has gone to arbitration. Adriana Cervantes, who is a CTU field representative for the school, said the majority of the teachers and staff support the grievances.
Before filing the first grievance, Cervantes said she told the principal that teachers would work with him to resolve the issues. He never responded, she said.
School district officials say it is common for new schools to go through growing pains as they get off the ground, and grievances are fairly commonplace across CPS. However, the teachers union says it’s unprecedented for the principal of a new school to have a case go to arbitration in the first few months.
Stacy Davis Gates, vice president of the Chicago Teachers Union, said some teachers have concerns about how welcoming a community it is for students.
“This is a brand new school,” said Gates, who visited the school on Monday. “This is the perfect opportunity to create a culture and a climate that respects the educators’ voice, that respects the students who are coming into the school community.”
The grievance charges the principal made the school schedule without consulting teachers, as is called for in the union contract. Also, it says the schedule he developed forces them to work more time than they should and, on some days, doesn’t allow them a lunch or prep period.
The school district did not respond to questions about the grievance, but it pointed to a letter posted on Twitter this week by a counselor at the school after Gates went public with the teacher complaints. The letter is signed by about 30 people affiliated with the school, including 22 staff members. Nine of them are teachers. The school has about 54 staff members.
The letter is titled “Englewood STEM High School: the counter-narrative.” It says “despite what you are hearing, the MAJORITY of the faculty and staff have just as much pride (as students) and are working to making this CPS experiment a success. Our administration provides us with guidance, constructive criticism and space to grow as educators and leaders.”
The letter also lists many of the programs, partnerships and supports for students at the school.
“We are trying something new and exploring different ways of educating our most vulnerable students.” the letter said. “Our hope is that this counter-narrative will provide you with a more holistic view of Englewood STEM High School versus a snapshot view representative of a select few.”
School district officials say this letter is a better representation of “the real story” of the school than the grievance.
“Educators and support staff at Englewood STEM, along with the more than 400 students who have embraced the school’s bold vision, have expressed continued excitement as they nurture and build a new, historic school community that will serve as a beacon for Englewood for generations to come, and those are the voices we should be paying attention to right now,” the statement said.
Gates said she knows the staff is committed to making the school a success, which is why she believes the grievance is noteworthy.
She also said one teacher told her she felt bullied by a principal who appears intent on creating a strict school environment. For example, Gates said the principal is going after teachers who let their students wear hoodies and coats. But she said the heating system in the $85 million school is spotty. Gates said another teacher said she did not have history textbooks was told by the administration “chin up. You can do it.”
She said the strict environment means students don’t feel as at ease at Englewood STEM as they do at certain North Side schools, like Jones College Prep.
The staff letter posted on Twitter seems to address the strict discipline. It says the school shouldn’t be compared to “well-established schools in ‘different’ neighborhoods. This is Englewood and our students’ safety is our top priority.”
Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter at @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.