Outspoken teachers who urged students to join environmental protest avert firing by Chicago Board of Ed

The George Washington High School teachers who led protests against General Iron’s move to the Southeast Side will get warnings instead.

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George Washington High School teachers Chuck Stark and Lauren Bianchi stand outside the Chicago Public Schools headquarters in the Loop during Wednesday’s Board of Education meeting.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The Chicago Board of Education rejected a recommendation from Chicago Public Schools’ officials to fire two teachers who had encouraged students to protest the General Iron car-shredding operation’s planned relocation to their Southeast Side community.

George Washington High School teachers Lauren Bianchi and Chuck Stark instead will get warnings and must agree to training related to CPS rules, the board voted unanimously Wednesday.

Both teachers were vocal opponents of General Iron moving from Lincoln Park to East 116th Street along the Calumet River, a site a little more than a half mile from the school where they taught. Students from the school took part in a number of demonstrations.

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In addition to multiple marches and demonstrations, Stark took part in a hunger strike ,and Bianchi was arrested at a protest outside a city official’s home.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration denied a permit for the business to operate in February. Last week, federal officials who investigated the matter over the past two years accused the city of practicing racially discriminatory zoning and land-use policies.

CPS officials recommended firing the two for “repeated instances of poor judgment and bias in their instructional roles and in their faculty adviser roles.” A more than 400-page report outlined the accusations, though that document wasn’t made public.

Chicago Teachers Union officials said Bianchi and Stark were targeted by Lightfoot for embarrassing her.

“Let me be clear — this is retaliation,” CTU President Stacy Davis Gates said at a rally in support of the teachers Wednesday. “This is retaliation because we have two educators who stood in lockstep with their students, their families and their communities to challenge the racism.”

In a written statement, Lightfoot said: “The board considered a matter today involving allegations of serious rules violations and rendered a decision. This matter is now closed.”

Several representatives of the Southeast Side school and the community spoke during the board meeting in favor of retaining the two teachers. Each has taught at George Washington for four years.

Donald Davis, a teacher at George Washington, told the board Bianchi and Stark are “star teachers” at the school and said he believes they were “being unfairly targeted.”

Marcelina Pedraza, a community member and parent, told the board Stark and Bianchi are “amazing teachers, and our community is lucky to have them.”

One former student credited the teachers with helping her attend Northwestern University as a freshman this fall on a full-ride scholarship.

“They’ve been some of the best teachers I ever had,” said Trinity Colon, who recently graduated from George Washington and has participated in protests against the metal shredder. “If the board truly cares about Black and Brown youth, they will not fire teachers who have done nothing more than love and protect” students.

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Former George Washington High School student Trinity Colon urged the Chicago Board of Education to save the jobs of two teachers targeted for environmental protests.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Both Bianchi and Stark were told Tuesday that CPS was recommending their dismissal. Both have described their work with students as “culturally relevant education” that is supported by the school district.

“I’m overwhelmed with joy,” Bianchi said after the board vote. “This has been a scary 24 hours.”

“All the evidence showed we did not do anything wrong,” Stark said, adding that he looks forward to returning to George Washington for the start of the new school year next month.

In closing remarks, Chicago Board of Education President Miguel del Valle said, “This board believes in culturally relevant educationand it is a core value of CPS.”

“We will continue to be supportive of all our teachers who promote education that is relevant and sensitive to the environments of our students and the overall status of their communities. So in no way do we want to move away from that commitment,” del Valle added.

CPS officials said in a statement after the vote that they hope the warnings “will not only address the behavior of these teachers but ensure that promoting civic engagement among school communities is done appropriately and with due regard for student safety.”

Brett Chase’s reporting on the environment and public health is made possible by a grant from The Chicago Community Trust.

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