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Opinion: Did Chicago teacher get fired for speaking out?

Manley Career Academy on Chicago’s West Side lost an accomplished, veteran math teacher on Oct. 5.

Valentina Sorescu was fired — the victim of a big enrollment drop at the high school, according to her principal.

Sorescu isn’t buying that explanation.

Given the sequence of events that led to her firing, I’m not sure I buy it either.

It looks as if Sorescu got canned before other teachers at Manley because she was outspoken and provided crucial documents for a story I wrote for The Atlantic this July that cast her school in a negative light.

OPINION

The magazine article described an apparent effort by administrators to fudge attendance records to paper over a huge problem of students missing and cutting class. Sorescu anonymously shared documents that revealed a damning pattern: administrators erased thousands of unexcused student absence notations made by teachers, boosting attendance rates for individual students and the school. She also reached out to the school system’s inspector general, who is investigating. Late Thursday, CPS officials claimed that 90 percent of those absences were because of two school field trips but provided no documentation to back that up.

Despite being jobless, Sorescu has no regrets. She only wishes she had attached her name to the original story, as one colleague did. She has agreed to allow me now to reveal that she was one of my anonymous sources.

“This is the reality, this is what’s going on in my school,” said Sorescu, who taught 15 years at Manley after emigrating from Romania in 1998. “I’m glad it’s out there.”

Sorescu stood up for what’s right — giving students the best education possible, not a dumbed down one — consequences be damned. She deserves to be promoted, not fired.

It’s easy to see why fudging attendance hurts students; it makes it easier for them to pass without doing the work. It also hurts teachers because they are evaluated in part based on the test scores of students who aren’t in class.

“The expectations are very low; we just want them to graduate,” Sorescu said. “But what are we preparing them for?”

Manley’s principal, Trista Lashey Harper, told Sorescu that her position was closed because the school lost 106 students this year. In a statement, CPS said layoffs are determined according to the union contract. I’m not suggesting layoffs weren’t required, as tough as they are. A total of three teachers were let go.

But why Sorescu?

She earned national board certification, the profession’s highest credential, three master’s degrees and served as math department chair for the last five years. I never saw her teach, but after covering education for nearly two decades I easily recognized a top-flight educator. Manley’s two remaining math teachers both have less experience and fewer credentials than Sorescu. One was hired just this summer.

It doesn’t take much to connect Sorescu’s cooperation on my story to her firing, though the principal insists she didn’t know Sorescu was my source. That was all the principal would say before referring me to CPS’ press office. Sorescu regularly challenged the principal and is closely aligned with the Manley teacher I quoted slamming the school administration. Plus, many Manley teachers lack tenure, making it highly unlikely they would jeopardize their jobs by speaking up. The pool of possible sources is very small.

Sorescu’s firing was the last straw after three months of apparent retaliation. Two weeks after my article ran, she inexplicably lost access to a key school data system. Then, in August, the principal took away the core math classes she had previously taught. She assigned her elective classes only, which Sorescu says puts a teacher at great risk of being laid off should students choose not to sign up. Sorescu fought back and got two core classes and the highest load — 137 students — in the building. Sorescu also was stripped of her role as math chair and as technology coordinator. All this after 15 years on the job.

Sorescu hired a lawyer and is fighting her termination. I am cheering her on. I hope others will as well.

It’s now on CPS higher-ups to decide: Was Sorescu’s decision to speak up and her subsequent firing purely a coincidence?

Possibly.

But I seriously doubt it.

Kate N. Grossman is a director at the Institute of Politics at the University of Chicago. She is former deputy editorial page editor at the Chicago Sun-Times.

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