I am the son of a black father from the South Side and a white mother from the North Side. I grew up in Bronzeville and now live in Beverly. I attended five Chicago Public Schools and I’ve taught in every corner of Chicago, in schools that were predominately African-American, Latino-American and European-American. I have served students who were homeless, and students whose families owned multiple homes. I was an assistant principal in a turnaround school, and I am currently the principal of Blaine Elementary, one of the city’s highest-performing neighborhood schools. Finally, I am a CPS parent with a son at our neighborhood public school.
I am fortunate to have experienced public schooling from such diverse viewpoints. However, nothing I’ve seen can compare to what I’ve witnessed as a CPS principal under the administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.
Since 2011, CPS principals and teachers have experienced unprecedented political burdens. Early on, teachers felt publicly maligned and disrespected by the mayor, leading to the historic strike of 2012.
While publicly praising principals in speeches and with awards, behind the scenes this administration has disregarded principals’ knowledge and experience. They have ignored and even suppressed principals’ voices in order to push City Hall’s political agenda for Chicago’s schools.
The administration’s interaction with principals is often insulting. During the debate over the longer school day, some principals questioned its merits. CPS officials were then dispatched to tell the principals their opinions didn’t matter. “You are Board employees,” a central office official told a room full of principals at a meeting, “and when you speak, your comments must be in line with the Board’s agenda.” He instructed us to have an “elevator speech” supporting the longer day ready at a moment’s notice. We were told that if Emanuel and the press walked into our schools, we’d better be prepared to list the benefits of his longer day. In a move that further humiliated principals, they were called on at random to give their elevator speeches at subsequent principal meetings.
Shortly afterward, CPS slashed school budgets, voted to close 50 schools and made disingenuous statements about the slashed budget giving more “autonomy” to principals. They insinuated these cuts would have little effect on classrooms. I spoke up to give Chicagoans a factual assessment of the effects of these cuts. A reporter from WBEZ Radio recorded a statement I delivered at City Hall in July 2013 and posted it on the station’s website. It became one of the station’s most downloaded audio files.
Several months later, I spoke about overcrowded schools on WYCC television. A few hours before filming, I emailed CPS officials to inform them. Later that afternoon — unaware the show had already been taped — those officials told me not to appear because I did not have permission. On the subject of whether I had the right to speak as a private citizen, CPS said I should wait to receive clarity. After more than two months I’m still waiting for “clarity” from CPS on my right to speak.
Recently, during a break at a training session, a few principals gathered to discuss what they could not say publicly. They expressed concerns about the impact of Emanuel’s effort to cut teacher pensions on our ability to recruit talented people into the teaching profession. They questioned unfunded mandates that pull resources from classrooms, and condemned CPS’ expenditure of over $20 million on Supes Academy — an organization the CEO of CPS once worked for — to provide principal training, a training that principals agreed was among the worst they’d experienced.
Principal after principal expressed legitimate concerns that none felt safe expressing publicly. Finally, I spoke.
“This administration gets away with this because we let them. We are the professionals. Yet, we allow political interests to dominate the public conversation about what’s good for the children in our schools. Every time these officials misinform the public about the impact of their policies, we need to follow them with a press conference of our own to set the record straight.”
Those who responded expressed concerns about being harassed, fired or receiving a poor evaluation. Principals sat paralyzed by fear of what might happen if they simply voiced the truth. One of them asked me plainly, “Aren’t you afraid of losing your job?” The question awakened a memory:
“General Quarters! General Quarters! All hands, man your battle stations!”
In 1989, when I was in the Navy, I was stationed onboard an aircraft carrier and accustomed to hearing the “General Quarters” battle readiness exercise. However, on January 4 of that year, it came with a sobering declaration: “This is not a drill.”
Our ship had entered the Gulf of Sidra near Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya, and crossed Gaddafi’s “Line of Death.” Two Libyan warplanes were headed our way. Fortunately, our F-14 fighter jet pilots were able to shoot the warplanes down. Our captain later praised the pilots and ship’s crew for our willingness to risk our lives to preserve American freedoms.
So when people ask me, “Aren’t you afraid of losing your job if you speak out?” this is my answer: I did not travel across an ocean and risk my life to defend American freedoms only to return and relinquish those freedoms to an elected official and his appointed board of education.
The world’s highest-performing school systems are built on the ideas of American education professionals ranging from John Dewey to Linda Darling-Hammond, ideas that recognize school improvement is not an individual race, but a team sport. Yet, our own elected officials have been ignoring those ideas in favor of teacher-bashing, privatized choice, fly-by-night fast-track teacher licensing and over-reliance on testing — ideas that have not improved schooling in any nation that has tried them.
Those of us who know better must lift our voices to persuade the residents of Illinois to reject these backward ideas and to oust the politicians who peddle them. We must work together to build our own system-wide improvement effort. The future of public education is at stake, and the future of Chicago’s children is at risk. We must lift our voices and be heard.
This is not a drill.
Troy A. LaRaviere, Principal
Blaine Elementary School