“This summer’s indictment of Gloria Harper backs the report’s general claims that school board members would abuse power to amass personal wealth and enrich family and friends. Harper, on the board from 1999-2009, stands accused of delivering $21 million in bus contracts for payments reaching $20,000 per month.”
When you read about this North Chicago school and all its problems, keep focused on Gloria Harper since this kind of White Chalk Crime does not happen in a vacuum. It happens where MANY people with power have greedy agendas. Also note that the Illinois State Board, (ISBE) has taken over this school, the very same ISBE that held a kangaroo hearing to get rid of me, a teacher who tried to report White Chalk Crime at my school. This is the very same ISBE that altered a document in my record and made sure that the hearing officer, who worked for them, would refuse to put this violation of law into the record. Their taking over of a corrupt school is more than likely to stop the bleeding of truth about what is going on in our schools! Thus, I would not hold my breath waiting for anything but more WHITE CHALK CRIME at this district. Karen Horwitz
When it goes wrong – by Kyle Jahner
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If you were making a list of things that could go wrong in a school, you’d inadvertently be drawing up a description of the North Chicago school district
North Chicago High School counselor Carma Gregory did not want to graduate this student. She had failing grades. She didn’t take any of her finals; instead she was playing basketball in California –she had moved from California months before graduation – trying to earn a basketball scholarship. She said she was told the student “can’t fail.”
The conflict would be used to force Gregory – who had over 20 years of experience – from high school counselor into a job as a teacher at an elementary school, something she’d never done before. She said her new principal bullied her out of that job in a year. She then weathered one more year in the district before retiring in the summer of 2010, earlier than she intended.
At Neal Math and Science Academy, the district’s seventh and eighth grade school, 52 percent of students are proficient in Math and 51 percent are proficient in reading.
“I just felt like the torture was not worth my sanity,” Gregory said.
She wasn’t the only disillusioned teacher or administrator to flee North Chicago District 187. In a state with plenty of struggling schools, the Illinois State Board of Education took action; in an unprecedented agreement with the district, it intervened in December. But a district giving the state a headache proved much harder on teachers.
Bad situations repel good educators across the U.S. School documents and extensive interviews indicate North Chicago was a particularly vivid example.
A July 14 indictment of two school officials for wire fraud and soliciting bribes recently garnered headlines. But the problem’s roots extend far deeper than an alleged bus contract kickback scheme. The same month the state intervened and took ultimate control of major decisions, a team of consultants produced a scathing 50-page needs assessment for District 187. The report – ordered by then-interim superintendent Ben Martindale – documented school board corruption, ineffective principals, discipline and security problems, non-existent curriculum structure, impotent special needs programs, and grade-fixing.
In Gregory’s case, she said her principal lied at her hearing in 2008. He blamed her for the student failing, saying Gregory put her in advanced classes – even though students that new weren’t eligible for them. She said she had prepared “literally a trunk-full of evidence” including transcripts and statements from her teachers, but her union lawyer for the arbitration hearing advised her not to use it.
On top of a task she said was designed for her to fail, her boss at North Elementary was Principal Domingo Garcia. Four other teachers who taught at North Elementary, who wished to remain anonymous for fear of retaliation or future employment implications, each independently echoed her characterization of Garcia as a bully.
“There’s no accountability whatsoever at the school. The principal doesn’t even know the curriculum.”
“I’ve seen staff meetings where teachers left crying.”
“That guy scares the shit out of me… People get a little emotional and just traumatized by being there.”
North Elementary was the only school in Lake County to win an award from the state for “Academic Improvement” after three consecutive years of rising proficiency rates in math and reading. Teachers said the award was won in spite of – not because of – Garcia, and that it saved his job.
Garcia attributed complaints to the nature of a principal’s job, and said certain teachers at the school were unaccountable and unprofessional.
“The worst thing that can happen in any organization, being divisive and spreading rumors because they didn’t get what they want,” Garcia said. “I do not play games with anybody. My sole purpose of being here is to help the children of this school to get ahead.”
Gregory moved on to Neal Math and Science Academy to teach eighth grade science after a year at North. But not even working for principal Mike Grenda – respected by Gregory and other teachers interviewed – was enough to stop the district’s avalanche of problems from driving her into early retirement.
Many in the troubled nine-school, roughly 4,000-student North Chicago district believe state intervention and new hires will stabilize and perhaps revitalize the close-knit community’s schools.
The revolving door of superintendents and business managers, kept spinning by what the needs assessment called a “culture of dysfunction,” spawned a toxic working and learning environment while obscuring the depth of financial problems. Illinois law requires failing standardized test scores or financial failure to justify state intervention. The state chose poor test scores – largely because North Chicago’s sloppy financial data made proving financial ruin almost impossible at the time. ISBE said in July that the district finished 2010 over $11 million in the red on a roughly $50 million budget.
Perhaps oddly, the very man who led the assessment outlining the districts problems envisioned a brighter future.
“There is a feeling of optimism here that is just hard to imagine,” said Douglas Parks, who followed Martindale as interim superintendent for the second half of last year.
During the term of Parks – also temporarily pulled from retirement to hold the rudder – the state selected Milt Thompson as the permanent solution. The former superintendent in Beloit, Wisc., has over three decades of experience in education, most of it in administrative roles in troubled districts. But North Chicago redefines ‘troubled.’
“I would not have been even remotely interested under any circumstances, except that the state’s in charge,” Thompson said. “The dynamics here are such that if the state’s not involved, you wouldn’t have been able to move forward.”
Recent history supports the sentiment. Thompson said a neighboring superintendent told him he was the 21st North Chicago superintendent he’d met in 17 years. Merely serving the entirety of his three-year contract would be an achievement.
Educators hope the hires can change the culture. Teachers said Thompson has already been more visible than past superintendents. Barbara Warren, a librarian at the high school, also expressed optimism with Thompson, as well as his choice of Eric Gallagher as the new principal of the high school. There, math and reading proficiency levels hover around 15 and 11 percent, respectively.
“He’s a dynamite man, and he’s got a lot to offer,” she said of Gallagher. “I’m really looking forward to working with him.”
It will take the power of dynamite to budge the operational culture in North Chicago. Page 2
Like many parts of the country with struggling schools, North Chicago also flounders economically. Shaquieta Almond graduated from North Chicago High in 1997, but said that she can’t find work. She attended Computer Systems Institute to further her education, but said all that did was put her in debt.
The lakefront town – know by the slang “NoGo” – sits just south of Waukegan and 12 miles from the Wisconsin border, and is home to the Great Lakes Naval Station. Nearby, a sleepy downtown with a mix of shops and vacant buildings reflects economic reality in the outer Chicago suburb. The city’s 19.6 percent unemployment rate in 2010 topped 100 listed Illinois cities according to data from the Illinois Department of Employment Security.
Despite struggles, an everyone-knows-everyone quality characterizes North Chicago, a place some locals call “a small town with big city problems.” Among those problems are the schools.
That tight community has its benefits, but familiarity can breed not just contempt, but also favoritism and corruption.
“We found little or no evidence that this Board of Education understands or complies with the Illinois Association of School Board Ethics,” says Parks’ report, one punctuated by a 91-point set of recommendations to deal with 32 fundamental issues.
This summer’s indictment of Gloria Harper backs the report’s general claims that school board members would abuse power to amass personal wealth and enrich family and friends. Harper, on the board from 1999-2009, stands accused of delivering $21 million in bus contracts for payments reaching $20,000 per month.
“In the district there’s a lot of nepotism. Instead of someone qualified, it was ‘hire my nephew,'” one teacher said.
Two other teachers said not attending the right church or being involved in certain social circles could ruin promotional opportunities and even job security. The report said the board micromanaged day-to-day school operations, helping allies and punishing foes.
Meawhile, the district complicated budgetary problems – fueled by turnover in the financial manager’s office – by issuing over $42.5 million in bonds in June 2010. ISBE cautioned against the move, and the report criticized the “inaccurate perceptions of board members of the District’s overall financial position at the time of the bond sale.”
Officials both in the district office and at ISBE paint an optimistic picture of post-intervention activity, but the damage is deep, and many who were on the board – which the report said had ran roughshod through the power void created by superintendents lacking either the will or ability to lead – remain.
Eventually the board finally recognized it needed help. Parks credited Kenneth Robinson, a former board member drafted to return as board president in 2009, as a catalyst. He said going to the state for help was a turning point.
“He is the reason it changed. It’s a fact,” Parks said.
Robinson deflected credit towards Martindale, the state’s first major response to the board’s requests for help. Martindale immediately told his staff that they worked for him; going to a school board member would be punished as insubordination.
“That was something they had never heard before,” Robinson said. “The board is truly beginning to understand what their role is.”
The hope is that with new personnel from outside the city and with ISBE looking over their shoulders will suffocate corruption. Thompson said such an improvement in atmosphere generally improves school board quality.
“In districts that begin to become high-achieving, more professional people begin to run for school board,” Thompson said. “But these people have lives. If there is a lot of drama and intrigue, they refuse to run.”
Beyond the Board
Neal special education teacher Marie Honeywell felt ill. To her, staying home was not an option; during her time in North Chicago she said she had virtually no administrative support, either from her principal at the district’s middle school or the district’s special education director. Her students said she looked sick, and since her assistant hadn’t arrived yet, the class went with her to the nurse’s office.
After a basic checkup and blood pressure tests, the nurse simply asked: “Mrs. Honeywell, do you want me to call an ambulance or give you a ride to the hospital?”
Her blood pressure was through the roof. The doctor asked if she had anything in her life that had her stressed, and she replied that she works in the North Chicago School district. The doctor needed no further explanation.
Principals took heavy fire in Parks’ report, which labeled them as inexperienced and ineffective. They were accused of maintaining minimal visibility at their schools and refusing to meet with parents. And some pushed teachers like Honeywell to the breaking point.
At North Chicago High School, the principal and board members often overturned recommendations from deans or counselors regarding students, the report said. Several teachers interviewed said classroom observations were rare and unprofessional, another report finding.
The report also said evidence that student grades had been changed at parental request and that transcripts were created to match needs for potentially college-bound students in cases when records couldn’t be found.
One teacher with knowledge of Neal’s special education department said that one year, test scores for students coming from the sixth grade school, Novak-King, showed that special education students were performing at grade level. They were mainstreamed into regular classes; scores did not justify a self-contained program. But when they arrived at Neal, teachers reported that these students were reading at a second grade level and adding by counting fingers. They were returned to special education classes.
“Those test scores were not accurate based on the children’s performance,” the teacher said.
Preferential treatment for athletes at the high school also surfaced, both in the report and in the community.
“If you was in sports, the majority of teachers would be on you about your grades, because you have to have good grades to be on the team,” said Royshell Ryan, a basketball player who graduated this year. “But if you was just going to school to go to school, and if you don’t understand, good luck.”
The report documents high school security guards’ intimidation and lack of professionalism, and said some were related to board members. Former students said fights involving students and guards occurred regularly. Parks said the situation had improved, but added that even this past year a guard was dismissed for verbally abusing a student.
The list from the report goes on. Curriculum structure and professional development failed. Technology systems lag behind. Many teachers claim they’ve had to spend thousands of their own dollars on classroom supplies and copies.
Special Education and English Language Learners programs remain woefully inadequate, according to the report. In one case, validated from school documents and emails obtained by News 21, the seventh and eighth grade special education classes were forced into one classroom, despite objections of both teachers to special education director Patricia Curry.
A teacher also backed the report’s claim of feeble language learning programs. She cited a litany of examples, including cases where teachers at North Elementary who didn’t know a word of Spanish were placed into bilingual kindergarten classes.
Hostile Work Environment
Four years ago, Garcia took over a school that had seen six principals in five years. Despite the rising test scores – which still lag well behind state averages – a contentious environment between him and some of the teachers festered.
Garcia claimed that when he started at North, many teachers arrived late – a complaint substantiated by one teacher critical of Garcia. Garcia said he knew he had a harsh reputation in some circles, but said that the teachers doing the most complaining about him were often unprofessional and ineffective.
“Did those teachers help bring the result, the success?” he said. “No. Did they honestly help those students? I would say no. But they are still in the system. Do they accept responsibility for the lack of learning? No.”
But one teacher responded that Garcia was fixated on the number of students merely passing tests rather than their growth. The teacher produced documents to News 21 indicating that her students improved by as much as two grade levels. But she said Garcia – rather than praise the boost – simply wanted to know how she got a hold of the previous year’s scores.
Teachers said Garcia often quipped, “If you don’t like it, there’s the door.” A line has formed at the door: one teacher listed off in an email 20 names of teachers that either quit or requested a transfer from the school since 2007, including ten in the past school year.
“If you want to go, I will say God bless you and wish you a lot of success,” said Garcia, who said he has good rapports with many teachers and students.
The needs assessment criticized principals evaluation processes, and multiple teachers independently corroborated that by saying Garcia’s evaluations were rare and unprofessional, citing evaluations scheduled for the fall didn’t happen until spring.
Another teacher sent a letter – one shared with News 21 – to the then-human resources director. It claimed Garcia had recommended her termination after one negative observation; the union contract required at least two. It said Garcia had positively evaluated the teacher the two previous years, and did not discuss the observation with the teacher until eight weeks later, and initially asked her to sign a blank evaluation form before he filled it out.
Teachers also said he was rigid in expectations of lesson plans and teaching style.
“He wants each teacher to teach exactly the same. You can’t do that. Every kid you have to individualize how you are teaching them,” one teacher said.
But the most striking comments stem from teachers’ fear of Garcia and his intimidating demeanor.
“If he gets yelled at by superintendent, he yells at all the staff rather than individuals with problems,” one teacher said. Another was afraid to go into his office without a union rep.
Teachers complained of discipline problems at the school, but Garcia said teachers needed to follow procedures and respect his judgment, which he said some didn’t do.
“Once you turn in a referral, then it’s out of your hands. If I decide I want to take him out to buy him a pizza, if I want to suspend him, that is my prerogative,” Garcia said.
Multiple teachers cited a particular student that terrorized the school, reportedly chasing one girl with scissors to cut her hair and banging another’s head into a wall. A teacher said students not even in her class were terrified of her. Garcia did not remove the student. According to the teacher, he said “she’s leaving soon anyways.” The student graduated only to be expelled from the district in middle school.
Garcia claimed that, despite unhelpful parents, the student had gone from a terror to manageable in her time at North, and blamed her expulsion on a poor teacher at her next school. A teacher bristled at the explanation, saying the student had been suspended again her very last week at North.
Garcia said the union would step in when he tried to improve practices, and that many resisted changes to improve education.
“Some teachers felt they were very good teachers. Some became very disgruntled with me. They wanted to do their thing,” he said. “They didn’t want to follow curriculum.”
Though he stood out, teachers said administrators created negative environments for teachers in many North Chicago schools. With no reliable outlet for their grievances, many teachers wore down. In interviews, several North Chicago students said they felt like some of their teachers simply didn’t care.
“There are great people working here. There’s just not a lot of processes and procedures in place,” Gallagher, the new high school principal, said, adding that improved leadership and stability would make a difference. “Teachers become teachers for a reason. Sometimes they just get lost.”
A New Direction
Even if other districts in the U.S. fail to match North Chicago’s dysfunction in degree, lessons remain about the critical nature of strong leaders – and the dangers of defective ones.
One thing Neal Principal Mike Grenda has in common with Domingo Garcia is the level of agreement about his character among teachers interviewed. That might be the only thing.
Teachers called him an outstanding administrator; they said he backed them in controversy, understood how to manage people, and understood the intricacies of educating children. The 12-year veteran of the district, meanwhile, thinks legitimate change is coming, not just a new slew of leaders to come and go.
“Now we are able to go to that office, go through the struggles we are having. It makes a huge difference knowing you have someone in your corner,” Grenda said. “That started with Martindale.”
But he cautioned: “Some of these things have been pestering our district for years. It’s not going to change overnight.”
One change that could come quickly are two new schools. The state, base, and Thompson are working on plans to start two new K-8 schools on the property in 2012: a charter emphasizing STEM education, and a magnet focusing on the arts.
ISBE has committed considerable resources to assisting the re-tooling. The state board oversees 868 school districts with fewer than 500 employees, yet much time and energy are spent on this nine-school district. State Superintendent Chris Koch and state district liaison John Perkins have both worked closely with Thompson and his predecessors.
Obstacles remain. Big ones. The high school outperformed just eight out of more than 3,700 Illinois public schools in reading, and rank few spots higher in math. The district’s average ACT scores hover at 15.7; a 20 is considered necessary for college readiness.
But Thompson aims to fill his schools with people that prefer a challenge to a job in a safe, affluent, high performing district.
“I’m looking for the people who want to make this into a Lake Forest, and be part of a team to duplicate that kind of culture and high expectations,” Thompson said, referring to the wealthier, higher-performing district to the south.
Thompson said his philosophy – “feed your thoroughbreds, beat your mules” – will reward educators that buy into the ambitious goals. He also said Dr. Parks has discussed with him which people in the district “are keepers, and who might not be keepers.” Asked about Garcia, the new superintendent was non-committal.
“Throughout the course of the year we will observe interaction of all of our principals with staff,” he said. “We expect that interaction to be respectful, even when the interaction is disciplinary.”
With turnover everywhere, Grenda considers himself among the survivors, respect and sanity intact. Brandishing a competitive mentality, the former high school football coach who started in the district as an English teacher said he survives the turmoil by finding the day-to-day victories.
“There are things to celebrate,” he said. “This is a small-town mentality; I bought into this community.”
Even Honeywell saw positives. In the past she had found successes in both the military and in the corporate world, but considered herself a casualty of public education. From a military family, she had relatives going in and out of war zones as she worked in what she called a war zone of her own.
Passion for teaching was not her problem: she still tutors on a volunteer basis and says she really misses her students. But she quit before Grenda took over at Neal. She couldn’t justify the continued trauma of working in North Chicago.
“I am not going back to that madhouse,” she said.