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Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Principal LaRaviere for mayor?

Posted By on 06.11.14 at 02:45 PM

Blaine Elementary principal Troy LaRaviere
The case against the reelection of Rahm Emanuel next spring is more than one issue long, but the one that's stirred up all the passion is education. The hostility of educators who oppose him seems anchored by the belief that he regards them with contempt, and public education as a beast to be subdued. Karen Lewis, president of the Chicago Teachers Union, more than held her own against Emanuel in the 2012 teachers' strike, and she's the obvious candidate of enemies who believe education is Emanuel's Achilles' heel. But Lewis drips with electoral negatives, and besides, she's said she doesn't want to make the race.

A month ago Troy LaRaviere, principal of Blaine Elementary in Lakeview, published an op-ed in the Sun-Times that called out Emanuel, accusing him of running an administration that has "ignored and even suppressed principals' voices in order to push City Hall's political agenda for Chicago's schools." Principals rarely speak up at all, and a public statement so pugnacious was astonishing. Sure enough—a few days later I heard LaRaviere was being encouraged to run for mayor.

I talked to LaRaviere when his op-ed came out, and this week I talked to him again. Yes, he said, he's had feelers. They came from "people I don't know, people I haven't heard of," he told me. "There was one guy I thought was just some guy, and he talked about what he could do to give me support. And I told someone who knew Chicago politics and he showed me who that guy was and that he could do what he said he'd do."

LaRaviere insists he isn't interested: "I don't want to do anything but finish what I started at Blaine." But that doesn't mean he's said his piece and intends to shut up. "I'll do what I can to advocate for good education policy as principal," he said. "I will stand up. I will insert myself [into the mayor's race] to the extent I believe any candidate has an education platform that's based on sound research, based on implementing things that are shown to work. I will certainly get up and speak for it and in support of it, and help the public to see the merits of it."

For example, Amara Enyia, who's executive director of the Austin Chamber of Commerce, launched her campaign for mayor June 2 in Bridgeport, and LaRaviere not only was there but introduced her. She and LaRaviere know each other from the University of Illinois, where she studied law and education policy, he studied education administration, and both were involved in a poetry slam. He told me he accepted Enyia's invitation to speak as a chance to make some points about education in Chicago, but then he discovered she was already making them. So his introduction said so, and if he didn't endorse her platform then and there it was because she hasn't formally issued one.

If and when LaRaviere endorses Enyia—or someone else—he may not act alone. He's one of some 35 CPS principals organizing, in his words, "to speak directly to the public on matters of concern regarding education policy." He says there's been no talk at all among them of collectively endorsing someone for mayor, but he can easily imagine it coming to that.

In his op-ed, LaRaviere said Chicago Public Schools has "ignored and even suppressed principals’ voices in order to push City Hall's political agenda for Chicago's schools." It's an agenda that closes schools, slashes budgets, and favors "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." The role of the principal, in LaRaviere's view, is to keep his mouth shut and wag his tail.

Every year or two reform returns to Chicago's public schools in a new iteration, but what they all seem to have in common is a low assessment of teachers as a marginally competent body of lollygaggers who can't be trusted to do their jobs without oversight. The ones who fall down on the job get no sympathy; they're written off as burned-out deadbeats no one can do anything about because the CTU has made them impossible to fire.

LaRaviere insists teachers are professionals who need to receive years of training before they take over a classroom and who, if they falter, deserve respect and remediation. Yet he wanted me to know that when he took over at Blaine he got rid of eight teachers in the first two years. Three were untenured so those were easy—he simply didn't renew their contracts. But the others made him jump through hoops.

What makes LaRaviere so interesting to listen to is that he defends those hoops. He compares education to the judicial system. "The state invests in defense attorneys," he said. "The state invests in prosecutors." And it invests in judges and courtrooms. "So the system can work. If you're taking someone's freedom away you have to respect that process. Imagine a prosecutor saying it's impossible to convict someone of a crime! It's not impossible. [But] it's a process. I think if you're going to take someone's job away—and there are so many unscrupulous principals who want to take someone's job away for reasons other than ability—there has to be a process."

The problem, he says, is that CPS hasn't invested in the process, which means principals who want to fire teachers are on their own. And that's why when principals complain that it's impossible to get rid of a bad teacher, he says he's sympathetic even if he doesn't quite agree.

It took LaRaviere two years to clean house. "I made a commitment," he says, "that the quality of the persons in front of the kids would be most important to me and that's what I'd devote my time to." To find the time, he assigned a lot of his other duties to his two assistant principals. He says he gave the five tenured teachers he wanted to rid Blaine of a "very clear sense of what the process entailed," and made it just as clear that he was totally committed to it. "Because I'd collected so much evidence, the teachers knew I was serious," he says.

It helped, LaRaviere told me, that faculty attrition is no longer governed solely by seniority. Teacher ratings matter too, and when Blaine lost two teaching positions a couple of teachers with unsatisfactory ratings "were the first to go."

Was this a good word for reform?

"I actually see reform getting rid of good teachers," LaRaviere insisted. "Reform is attacking the profession of teaching and making good teachers feel continually attacked and belittled and underappreciated."

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