The timing of the sudden replacement of Marshall High School principal Angel Johnson just weeks into school had the West Side high school’s community confused and upset on Monday.
Longtime athletic director and powerhouse women’s basketball coach Dorothy Gaters, herself a Marshal graduate, called the timing “extremely poor” since school is already underway.
“The timing is just going to be a negative all on the whole change,” Gaters said. “The fact of the matter is they had an opportunity to make this change earlier, and they chose not to.”
Chicago Public School officials told the Chicago Sun-Times that the school applied for a state-administered federal grant that required the selection of a new principal.
But it was unclear Monday whether Johnson could have been spared — and whose responsibility it was to make that effort.
Word spread like wildfire Monday morning that Johnson, part of the neighborhood school’s 2010 drastic turnaround, was no longer in charge. District officials who gathered the staff Monday morning provided little information, according to teachers and the local school council. They did introduce the new principal, the school’s third leader since the turnaround.
Lori Campbell, formerly of the Piccolo School of Excellence, an elementary school run by the Academy of Urban School Leadership, was chosen through a “multiphased process” that wouldn’t disrupt the first two weeks of school, CPS spokesman Bill McCaffrey said. Neither he nor an AUSL spokeswoman would say why she left Piccolo.
As of Friday, Johnson is “reassigned,” meaning she is still being paid, McCaffrey said.
Longtime freshman English teacher Jim Dorrell said staff were pulled into a meeting Monday morning with CPS Network Chief Denise Little and told the news without being given any reason. Several CPS security officers guarded the outside of the school Monday morning. Parents and alumni of the school who showed up to support Johnson were not given the answers they were looking for.
“Kids are asking why, and they have the right to know,” said Dorrell, who in his 11th year is one of the few teachers who’s worked through the turnaround. “She’s a very visible, transparent principal. Her door is always open. She’s there in the morning. She’s constantly walking around in the halls.”
Johnson has a reputation for improving her teachers by finding them training for their weak spots, he said, calling her the “best principal I’ve ever worked for” out of the handful who’ve employed him.
CPS CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett said after a speech at the City Club of Chicago that the school had been on academic probation for 18 years.
“I can’t address what the previous strategy was, but I can say to you that that school applied for and has received a state incentive grant,” she said, referring to what the state actually calls “a school improvement grant.” “The terms of that grant are very specific, and we think that there’s now a solid, focused plan that is aligned to the overall strategy for CPS, and we’re looking forward to make certain that our children progress at the way in which they should.”
McCaffrey said the school improvement grant was contingent upon a leadership change in the school, adding that the state declined to seek a waiver that would keep the existing principal in place.
But CPS and the State Board of Education disagreed on whose responsibility it was to seek that waiver. The state said it was up to CPS. But McCaffrey said the guidelines let the state ask for the waiver.
Either way, no one moved to keep Johnson at the helm.
Though Marshall won a state incentive grant in 2010 along with Fenger, Orr, Phillips and Harper high schools, that was a “turnaround” grant requiring the replacement of the entire staff and principal in exchange for $5.8 million over three years to flood such a struggling school with resources to get it back on track. The current grant is a “transformation” grant for $3.75 million over three years.
Teachers credit Johnson and the school’s curriculum director with scurrying to meet the grant’s May deadline, and said they feel they were misled about having to change principals.
“We specifically asked that question, ‘If we take this grant, are we going to lose positions or could Ms. Johnson be fired?’ and they said no,” Dorrell said of a meeting with ISBE. “Or else why else would Ms. Johnson write a grant that would have her removed?”
Illinois State Board of Education spokeswoman Mary Fergus said the board never told the school it could take the grant without replacing Johnson. And she said it was the district rather than the school that applied for the grant, and the district never asked to keep Johnson.
ISBE also asked CPS as a condition of funding to “propose a recruitment strategy on or before July 30 to place a new, highly qualified principal … by the start of the 2014-15 school year.”
The grant’s 83-page application — much of it written on Marshall letterhead and signed at the end by Byrd-Bennett — lists Johnson as principal and cites her achievements as principal in improving the school, including several letters of support on her behalf.
Ald. Jason Ervin (28th), who counts hundreds of Marshall students as constituents, wrote on May 1, that “under the Leadership of Principal Angel Johnson, Marshall has become a school that is more than ever committed to support students in our community through high school graduation and preparing them for college. Even though Principal Johnson has been the principal at Marshall for two and a half years, the school has already begun to show significant improvement.”
Ervin, who wrote another letter of support for Johnson in August stressing Marshall’s need for stable leadership, said Monday he was once again disappointed that CPS removed “a remarkable principal from a school which has seen drastic academic improvement and parental involvement. CPS has sought change and did what they thought was the best for our community without our input or consent,” he said in an email.
Marshall, which counts 26 percent of its students as special education, and about 91 percent as low-income on the CPS website, raised its attendance from 2010 from 53.5 percent to 79.9 percent in 2014, according to its application. Its behavior infraction rate, around 50 percent in 2010, remained below 20 percent since the turnaround.
Ida Hudson, chair of the local school council and parent of a rising senior, said Monday that Johnson had to reapply for her position over the summer.
“Right now my concern is the students and how they’re going to adapt to it. This is week three, especially the incoming freshman. They’ve been introduced to this lady, the parents met her. My main concern is really the students and how they will adapt and their reaction. Even though change is a part of life, something this drastic, we never know how they’re going to react to it.”
Marshall students said after school that Johnson was a strict principal who often went out of her way to help students.
“I’m unhappy about it, I loved her,” said Thomas Cheatham, 17, a junior. “She’d keep me focused on my work and keep me out of trouble and stuff.”
Johnson was hardly universally popular.
“She was a nice lady, but she hasn’t really helped, “ said Keyuntae Dent, 18, a senior. “I’ve been here two years, and I think it’s gotten worse.”
He added that Johnson came to the cafeteria and said goodbye to some of the students. “She said she wouldn’t be around, and that we’d have a better year. Didn’t nobody really care,” Dent said.
William Reeves, 18, a junior, did care. “I think it’s petty. She’s been here since I was a freshman. She was a good principal,” Reeves said. “She’s kept me out of trouble. If it wasn’t for her I wouldn’t be on track to graduate.”
Contributing: Maudlyne Ihejirika, Art Golab