Managing chaos: another school-board screwup | Neighborhood News | Chicago Reader

Managing chaos: another school-board screwup 

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Over the last ten years Miriam Socoloff has helped build an arts program at Lake View High School that's one of the best in the city, if not the metropolitan area. Working within a small budget and scavenging supplies, Socoloff and her two colleagues have trained dozens of students who went on to college and given many more a lifelong appreciation for art. The school, at 4015 N. Ashland, is beautifully decorated with the paintings, murals, and sculpture her students have created.

"Ms. Socoloff is the greatest," says Agatha Paciorek, a 17-year-old senior who plans to attend fashion school next fall. "A lot of kids who went to college couldn't have done it without her."

So what did the Board of Education members do as a sign of their appreciation? They transferred Socoloff to Prosser, a vocational school that has no art program. "I got a call from some clerk who told me that I had to report to Prosser," she says. "Prosser knew nothing about it. They wanted to know why anyone would send an art teacher to a school where they don't teach art? Good question, I say."

The answer has to do with what might be the most cockamamy scheme ever to emanate from the central office. On the eve of the school year, with little warning or planning, school superintendent Argie Johnson and the Board of Education ordered high school classes expanded from 40 to 50 minutes. The intent was to reduce the system's multimillion-dollar deficit by getting rid of teachers. But the result has been a monumental bureaucratic breakdown, as teachers are shuffled all over the city, principals scramble to reconfigure schedules, and students wonder what classes or teachers they'll have from one day to the next.

The board's press spokesman wouldn't respond for comment, but central-office officials have dismissed the disruption as a small price to pay for ridding the payroll of perhaps hundreds of teachers at a savings of millions of dollars. Not surprisingly, teachers and students have a far different perspective. "They're telling us they have to destroy the system in order to save it," says Socoloff. "It's another example of how they drive good people out or grind them down."

For the last several years board members have argued that the system is bloated with a surplus of teachers whose jobs are protected by the union contract. Over the summer the board tried to induce 5,000 teachers to retire by offering them a larger than usual pension. But only about 2,800 took the deal, and no one really knows how much money, if any, was saved.

So the board pressed harder during recent contract negotiations for teachers to work longer for less--a position seconded by Mayor Daley, the Sun-Times, and the Tribune. In the face of such pressure, union boss Jacqueline Vaughn agreed to most of the board's demands, including the proposal to lengthen high school class periods. (Vaughn says she had no choice about extending classes; the alternative was a board proposal to up the number of classes high school teachers would teach from five to seven.)

Superintendent Johnson and board president Sharon Grant had promised a smooth transition--or as smooth as it could be. Central-office operatives would figure out how many teachers each school should be allotted based on enrollment and the number of courses each student can take. Then they would take teachers from schools that had too many teachers and give them to schools that didn't have enough.

Of course moving hundreds of employees among 65 high schools is not simple. For one thing, the transfers violated the chief principle of reform--local control--by leaving schools at the mercy of the central office. For another, they were disruptive, coming after school had started. "You'd settle into your classroom, get to know the students, and then, bam, they'd send you packing someplace else," says Margaret Small, a math teacher at Lake View. "Now the kids are left without a teacher. So much for continuity."

Some teachers have been sent back and forth between schools, while desperate principals besiege the central office with phone calls, pleading that they be allowed to keep this or that teacher. And while teachers shuttle back and forth, wasting precious time in long lines at the personnel department, their classes are led by hastily assigned, ill-prepared substitutes.

With the teachers moving around, it was virtually impossible for most high school students to settle on a schedule. Some students have had their schedules changed up to five times in the last few weeks. "You don't know who your teacher will be or what class you can take," says Paciorek. "I had wanted to take African American history, but they moved me to psychology because they couldn't fit history into my schedule. But I already took psychology. It doesn't make any sense."

The changes also limit the variety of courses offered to students. Under the old system students could take up to seven 40-minute classes a day (not counting gym or lunch). Now they're allowed only five 50-minute classes, and after signing up for such basics as English, history, and math, students have no time for music, art, or a foreign language. At Whitney Young High School, for instance, the entire orchestra program had to be dismantled when a popular music teacher was transferred. With fewer classes to choose from, many students won't be able to get the credits they need to go to college or even graduate.

On top of all this the changes have forced principals to squeeze more kids into fewer classrooms. "We lost two math teachers, so the size of some math classes went from 17 to 30," says Small. "Anyone who has taught will tell you that you can accomplish more with a smaller class because you have more time for each student. You know what the central office told us when we complained? They said, 'Your kids at Lake View are taking too much math.' Can you believe that? We should be encouraging kids to take more math, not telling them they're taking too much."

Socoloff never thought she would be transferred because her position is federally funded. But on October 11 someone from personnel called her at home and ordered her to report to Prosser the next day. "It caught me by surprise, and I hung up without knowing what to say," she says. "I called right back and asked for the name of the person who had just talked to me. I was told, 'We're not open for business today.' I said, 'Well, you're open for some business.' Then they hung up on me. The people at central office can be so rude."

Socoloff got even ruder treatment the next day, when she went to the central office to appeal her transfer. There she found dozens of other teachers waiting for a moment with the personnel honchos. "The clerks barked at us like we were dogs," she says. "They have no respect for teachers in this system."

Unsure what she should do, Socoloff returned to Lake View. "Why should I go to Prosser? They don't have an art program. I decided that the one place I could do some good was in my classroom."

That's where she was when, later that afternoon, someone in the personnel office called to say she could stay at Lake View. When her students heard the news, they cheered. But then a math teacher at Lake View was transferred. "It just doesn't stop," says Socoloff. "Teachers and students will be paying for this all year."

If any parents or students are pleased with the changes, they haven't surfaced. Teachers worry that middle-class parents will pull their children from the schools and that other students will get frustrated and drop out. "This hurts the student who gets off to a bad start," says Small. "It's harder to make up the courses you've flunked, because there are fewer courses to take. The board did away with free summer school--it now costs $100 a class. So now a student has to figure, 'If I screw up once or twice I'm a five-year student.' I'm convinced the drop-out rate will go up."

For the moment there doesn't seem to be an end to the chaos. Students from Whitney Young, Lake View, and other high schools have marched on City Hall and the State of Illinois Center, demanding that Governor Edgar and Mayor Daley find the money to restore their courses and teachers. But Edgar refuses to support spending more state money on Chicago's schools, and Daley sticks to the board's line that teachers can't return to their old schools without new money from the state.

"I don't know if anyone's listening," says Socoloff. "I don't know if anyone cares about Chicago's schools. I feel I'm teaching at a good high school that's in a bad system that smashes any good thing we do. Now you know why so many good people leave teaching."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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