Gresham supporters rally against planned CPS turnaround

Written By BY STEFANO ESPOSITO, TINA SFONDELES AND LAUREN FITZPATRICK Staff Reporters Posted: 04/09/2014, 02:21am
Array CTU President Karen Lewis talks about the Gresham School, 8524 s. Green. Tuesday, April 8, 2014 | Brian Jackson/Sun-Times

Standing in front of Chicago Public Schools Board President David Vitale’s spacious Hyde Park home Tuesday evening, a group of nearly 100 rallied against and questioned the proposed turnarounds of three neighborhood schools.

The CPS parents, students and administrators questioned how a man of wealth could make decisions for parents in poor communities — and how the “turnaround” would benefit a community, while stripping it of its teachers.

“To stand in front of a house we know we can’t afford, for somebody to make the decisions for poor folks that constantly give to the rich and take from the poor … The globalization of education cannot continue to happen in the city of Chicago,” said parent Zerlina Smith, a member of the grassroots group Action Now.

Protesters, including Gresham Principal Diedrus Brown, stood in front of the two-story brick home — some on the front lawn and driveway — blocking rush-hour traffic for about 30 minutes and chanting against the proposed turnaround of Gresham Elementary School on the South Side, Ronald McNair Elementary School on the West Side and Dvorak Technology Academy in North Lawndale.

Angela Gordon, a Dvorak parent, asked the crowd what 170 homeless families on the school’s roster will do. And where the children of convicted felons in the neighborhood will go. Ollie Clements, a grandmother of two students at Gresham said a turnaround will “take away the heart of our community.”

At a protest earlier Tuesday at Gresham, Gwen Herbert offered two reasons to keep Gresham the way it is: A doctor and a lawyer.

In all, Herbert said she’s sent 10 of her children to the South Side school that Chicago Public Schools wants to close and reopen with all-new teachers.

“I have children here now, I’ve had children here in the past and my children have turned out pretty good,” Herbert said Tuesday. “I have a doctor. I have a lawyer. You name it, I have it, and they went to Gresham.”

Herbert joined other Gresham parents and students, Chicago Teachers Union President Karen Lewis and Principal Brown Tuesday morning, blasting the CPS plan to put the school into “turnaround.”

The group vowed to fight the plan, which they say has nothing to do with CPS’ stated intention of trying to turn around a school that’s lagging academically.

“It’s not fair, and it’s not the truth,” Brown said.

Since becoming principal in 2004, almost twice as many students now meet state-mandated test standards, she said.

“Is that really a steady decline?” Brown said. “I ask anyone.”

Certainly no one in the room disagreed with Brown, including Lewis, who described the so-called “turnaround” attempt the equivalent of a business “hostile takeover.”

Several parents said if central administrators want better results, they need to stop slashing funding for Gresham.

“CPS is bleeding the resources from the school to make the school fail,” said parent Eddie Ferrell.

In a statement, CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said: “We do not take a decision to bring systemic change to a school lightly, but when change is in the best interest of our students, we will not waver. We are committed to ensuring all of our students have access to a high-quality education and right now that is not what the students at Gresham are receiving.”

On Monday, Brown blatantly accused the district of other motives for choosing her school to hand over to a nonprofit turnaround organization with past ties to the school board president.

“Why are they really proposing to make Gresham a turnaround school? It is not for declining academic or probation status. . . . It is because of the money and they want this building!!!!!!” she wrote in all caps in a letter she addressed to Gresham’s parents, staff and community. The letter contained the school’s standardized test scores from when she became principal 10 years ago. The scores have decreased since 2010 but showed gains and dips overall rather than consistent decline.

Gresham was on last year’s initial school closing list. Then it was named as a possible co-location with a charter school or maybe a receiving school for children from a closed school nearby. The charter never moved in, but like other consolidated schools, Gresham received summer renovations: air conditioning in classrooms, wheelchair-accessible ramps on two sides of the building and two elevators. Meanwhile, she lost six positions this year: several teachers, aides, a student advocate who taught her kids life skills, and a parent advocate who had been part of the school for decades.

“If you want the building because you spent all this money on it, my bottom line is don’t fire all the teachers,” she told the Sun-Times on Monday. “Give them a job and take the building.”

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