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New concerns shake Payton College Prep as students stage walkout, pack school council meeting

A year and a half after racism allegations rocked one of the country’s most elite high schools, some parents called for the resignation of the school’s new principal over her management style.

Adeline Daab, a junior at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, left, writes “protect our teachers” on the sidewalk outside the school in the Near North neighborhood, Thursday morning, May 20, 2021.
Adeline Daab, a junior at Walter Payton College Preparatory High School, left, writes “protect our teachers” on the sidewalk outside the school in the Near North neighborhood, Thursday morning, May 20, 2021.
Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A year and a half after racism allegations rocked one of the country’s most elite high schools, a new administration at Chicago Public Schools’ Walter Payton College Prep is facing criticism for its management style, leading a school leader to resign.

Almost 200 students, parents and staff attended a sometimes emotional Local School Council meeting Thursday to share concerns about the way the school is being run under new leadership, citing a lack of transparency and consideration of teacher and student input in decision-making.

Payton’s latest controversy started with anonymous posts attributed to teachers last week on an Instagram page that relays the feelings of students and staff of color.

Many students wore red clothing — the color adopted by the Chicago Teachers Union — to school Thursday in support of their instructors, and students both in-person and virtually staged protests against the Payton administration. Groups gathered in hallways throughout the building, and some went outside to write “protect our teachers” in chalk on the sidewalk.

Payton Principal Melissa Resh acknowledged in a letter to the school community this week that she has heard “the outcry of pain from our teachers.”

“And what I’m hearing is that I am a source of that pain,” she wrote. “I am eager to address that with humility, empathy, curiosity, and a focus on healing.”

The principal said she would hold a listening session to allow staff to share their thoughts, including “examples of harm I’ve committed and/or mistakes I’ve made this year,” and how they’d like to see those issues addressed.

Resh’s email was followed by one on Thursday from Kristin McKay, hired this school year for a new director of transformative justice position, who said she won’t return to the school in the fall.

“Being new to a community during a time of global crisis, uncertainty, and loss, my hope was only to serve as a support to this school community and its members,” McKay wrote. “I’m grateful for the connections I’ve been able to build with many of you and know that at this time, I’m not the leader this community has communicated it needs.”

School officials could not be reached for comment.

A CPS spokesman said the district is aware of the situation and supports students expressing their concerns. Officials are in touch with staff and leadership and aim “to address some of the issues that have been raised.”

Resh and McKay came to Payton the year after significant racism allegations came to light while Black student enrollment dropped. To some, a large part of the new administration’s task was to help heal a wounded school community.

But after months of observing their leadership style, teachers this week said the leaders have changed systems without input from staff or students, and in some cases teachers of color in particular have felt drowned out. One specific source of friction has been next year’s budget, which threatened to cut the position of at least one beloved teacher to be replaced by another administrator.

Some parents at Thursday’s meeting called for Resh’s resignation while many students spoke up against the cutting of teacher positions.

“This year has been a long and tiring year for everyone,” Payton senior Brianna Warren said. “Our teachers have done so much for us as [Black, Indigenous, people of color].

“I’ve grown so much and it’s all thanks to them. We should not be removing any of our teaching positions.”