Chicago’s tumultuous first year of school reform rocked Spry Elementary School to its core. “Reform or Racism?” blared one newspaper headline as the media—both local and national—zeroed in on the city’s most contentious sites. At Spry, two teachers who helped dismiss a long-standing principal sank into a nightmare.
Ten years later—after threatening late-night phone calls, sleepless nights, a smashed car window—that time is still painful to speak of. “I’m not going to say it wasn’t worth it, but it left scars,” says Mary Cavey, one of the teachers, who years later became Spry’s principal.
Spry is set in Little Village, “La Villita,” a Mexican immigrant neighborhood, and at the edge of one of the city’s sweeping historic boulevards.
At the dawn of reform, “the school was severely overcrowded. The kids ate in corridors. The school was dirty. Student achievement was way down,” recalls Dolores Gonzalez-Engelskirchen, who was District 5 superintendent at the time. “It was not a good situation, as most of the schools in Little Village and Pilsen were not in good situations.”
By 1989, over 1,500 students were packed into a 100-year-old red brick school built to house under 1,000.
Principal Benedict Natzke, a tall, quiet man nearing retirement age, let the school run itself, often relaxing at his desk with a newspaper, according to teachers and staff who remain at Spry today.
Natzke arrived at Spry in 1977-78, as did bilingual teacher Mildred Arroyo-Wanzung, who was fresh from college. She teamed up with a group of 1st-grade teachers who, on their own initiative, worked together to improve instruction. She had contact with few others at Spry, and, tucked away in her basement classroom, she considered the school to be well-functioning.
In 1984, Arroyo-Wanzung became bilingual coordinator. Now in and out of other classrooms, and assigned to a desk outside Natzke’s office, she began to see the school in a different light. Minimal effort and low expectations appeared to be the norm. “One year the principal gave the Iowa [test] scores to the reading improvement teacher and said, ‘They’re very bad. Here, hide them,’ and then he chuckled.”
Mildred Arroyo-Wanzung (center) translates principal selection procedures into Spanish for two council colleagues. Carmen Ortiz and Janie Seoane, while reform volunteers Kyle Henderson, a lawyer, and Betty Forbes, a corporate official, look on. Half a dozen groups aided the council in its first year.
The students’ ethnicity, she suspected, had something to do with this attitude. “Maybe if they were Anglo students from a middle-class neighborhood, maybe the expectations of administration would have been different,” she thought. “As the years passed, I grew angrier.”
By the fall of 1989, she had decided that this year at Spry would be her last.
A soft-spoken woman with long, dark hair framing her angular face, Arroyo-Wanzung was born in Puerto Rico and raised in Chicago, “a shy, quiet Spanish girl,” she says. She would soon surprise herself.
Spry was hardly unusual in a school system that by the mid-1980s was considered among the nation’s worst. Low achievement, high drop-out rates and financial crises were widely blamed on a bloated and ineffective bureaucracy.
Public frustration came to a head in the fall of 1987, when a 19-day teachers strike set off a wave of grassroots organizing. Parents, advocacy groups and business leaders demanded change.
For one, they sought a new balance of power, in which each school would be governed by a council elected from its own neighborhood. Their crusade culminated in the 1988 Chicago School Reform Act, which created local school councils made up of six parents, two community members, two teachers and the principal. Among other powers, the council would be able to hire and fire its own principal.
To Arroyo-Wanzung, a school council looked like “just another committee.” However, as the organizer of monthly meetings for bilingual parents, she soon found herself recruiting candidates. “And of course they would [say], ‘Well, I’ll do it if you do it.'”
Meanwhile, her friend Mary Cavey, a 3rd-grade bilingual teacher, also had plans to leave Spry. A woman in her late 30s with an empathetic manner, Cavey had grown up in Chicago with German-speaking parents but studied Spanish instead and eventually acquired a Mexican accent at Spry.
She recalls the day she saw a colleague throw a child up against a classroom door. “The door bounced into the wall, and the student went crashing to the floor. And my feeling inside, I had nowhere to go with this.”
The uneven quality of the teaching staff was not wholly the principal’s fault, she believes—until the Reform Act, Chicago teachers were assigned to schools through central office. “But clearly he made choices as a principal to allow people to stay here that were not good for the children.”
Throughout the 80s, Cavey had been reading about reform efforts across the country “and seeing nothing happening in Chicago. The system had so … disenchanted me that I was even considering looking for other options outside of teaching.”
Driving to work with her colleague Linda Young one morning in the spring of 1988, she would speak words that would later seem to her prophetic. “Linda,” she remembers saying. “Reform is coming. I’ve got to give it a year. And if I feel that I’ve made one little bit of difference, I think that will be the motivation I need to hang on.”
In September of 1989, five teachers vied for the two teacher positions on Spry’s first local school council; Arroyo-Wanzung and Cavey were among them. Arroyo-Wanzung won by a clear margin. For the second spot, Cavey and another teacher tied. A drawing gave the seat to Cavey.
Parent and community council members were fairly typical of Spry’s poor, working-class neighborhood: several stay-at-home mothers, a store manager, a man who worked a night shift and another who worked part time at a local Catholic church, according to Arroyo-Wanzung. Only two spoke English.
The council spent its first months attending workshops run by the reform group Designs for Change and getting a handle on its responsibilities.
Two of Spry’s original local school council members. Maria Avila (left) and Maria Arevalo, were among those who voted to oust a long-standing princiapl setting off a wave of community protest.
In November, news from central office caught them off-guard. Half of Chicago’s local school councils would vote in February on renewing their principal’s contract; the other half would vote the following year. Spry would be in the first group.
To advise the council, the staff took a poll on renewing Natzke’s contract: It came out 82-19 in his favor.
Cavey was floored. “It never occurred to me that the staff—having many of the same experiences as I did—would even entertain an idea of keeping him.”
Now she was in a moral bind. In her campaign speech, she had promised to vote the teachers’ wishes. But when she thought of the students continuing under Natzke, her conscience pained her.
Cavey agonized for days. Finally, “in a very emotional moment,” she made her confession to the council. “I told [them] I had made a commitment to the staff, and that they clearly, overwhelmingly wanted the principal’s contract renewed. If I was going to keep my word, I was going to have to vote to retain him.”
By that time, Arroyo-Wanzung had aroused suspicion among her colleagues with her non- committal responses to questions regarding Natzke’s contract.
More attuned to school politics than Cavey, she had carefully avoided campaign promises to represent majority opinion. “I only said that I have a lot of knowledge, I have a lot of experience in the school.”
At first, recalls Benedict Natzke (now retired), he felt confident about the vote. Teachers, staff and parents stood solidly behind him. Test scores had risen during this tenure, he says, and while still low, they were not exceptionally low for the district. The school had problems—overcrowding, poor maintenance, some incompetent teachers—but these were largely beyond his control. Overall, he felt he had a hard-working staff.
Moreover, Natzke says, he had no idea the teacher representatives were unhappy with him or the school. He had worked closely with Arroyo-Wanzung for years, “and she had never said to me or indicated to me anything about anything being wrong,” he says.
February came and “a lot of the other principals had already signed their contracts,” Natzke recalls. Meanwhile his council “was coming up with long questionnaires for everyone in the school regarding my performance.” Arroyo-Wanzung’s evasiveness, combined with her standing as a Spanish speaker, also unsettled him.
“He knew I could influence the parents,” she says.
Gradually, Natzke realized the danger. After 32 years with the board and with only four to go until retirement, he feared losing his job and his pension. “It was a big shock to my whole system.”
To rally the faculty, Natzke told them at a February meeting that if he wasn’t retained, staff who don’t speak Spanish likely would lose their jobs, according to Arroyo-Wanzung. Natzke denies the incident as “absolutely untrue.”
A few days later, says Cavey, Natzke summoned her into his office and told her pointedly that he was holding her responsible for getting him a contract. “I said that I did not feel it was my job to tell the parents how to vote,” she says. “He slammed his hand on the desk and yelled that if that were the case, his contract would never be renewed.”
Natzke denies this incident as well, “She would be the last person I would approach for anything like that. She had no sway with the council at all. Mildred Arroyo was the only one that the council followed.”
Shaken, Cavey says she rushed home and phoned Mary Dempsey, a reform-minded School Board attorney, whom she would contact throughout the process for advice and moral support.
Many teacher representatives called her to report threats, says Dempsey, now commissioner of the Chicago Public Library. Her job was to review for councils the appropriate procedures and reassure them “that the Board of Education would stand behind them doing their jobs,” she says. “It was a matter of trying to calm the waters.”
But the storm at Spry was just beginning. Cavey received threatening phone calls; a petition circulated calling for Arroyo-Wanzung’s resignation.
Today some teachers say they supported Natzke out of a sense of loyalty or sympathy or fairness. “I thought when you changed the rules, you should let somebody have the chance to change,” says lead teacher Jean Laurence. But when she declined to sign a pledge not to accept another principal, a small group of Natzke supporters harassed her mercilessly, she says.
A fear of the unknown also may have motivated supporters, some at Spry believe—there was no telling who the council might put in Natzke’s place.
In a statement that vastly overestimated the council’s authority, a Spry teacher would even tell the New York Times, “If they succeed in removing the principal, next year it will be the school engineer, the lunch room jobs, then the teachers.”
Under intense pressure, council members leaned on each other. “Strangely enough, we were a very united group,” Arroyo-Wanzung says. “In that circle, there were parents who wanted to keep the principal, and that was OK. We knew we were in a lot of hot water and we had to stick with each other. There was no infighting.”
Reform groups also lent support. Designs for Change, Parents United for Responsible Education (PURE), the Chicago Panel on School Policy — all of which had lobbied for the Reform Act — held workshops that taught the fledgling councils, for example, how to read a budget and how to run a meeting. Some councils got step-by-step guidance through the principal evaluation process.
Citywide, most training the first two years of reform came from private, non-profit groups, who filled a void left by central office, according to Fred Hess of Northwestern University, then executive director of the Panel. With the Reform Act, central office underwent a massive downsizing, he says. “They were disorganized, and they needed some outside organizational help.”
Legislators had anticipated outside training, Hess adds. “You wouldn’t want to turn over to central office bureaucracy the responsibility of training people how to resist bureaucracy. The tone of this legislation was that the central office was not to be trusted.”
Reform groups taught the Spry council to think more critically about the role of the principal, says Cavey: “Is he developing parent and community leadership? Does he have a mission and share his vision?”
Reformers also provided data. For instance, Bernie Noven, co-founder of PURE, informed her that Spry had one of the poorest compliance rates in the district with rules governing special education.
Also key in shaping the opposition were two Spry parent representatives who also served on the council of Saucedo elementary school across the street. “[They] saw a big difference as far as feeling welcome, and feeling that they were a vital part of that community,” Arroyo-Wanzung says.
Since Spry parents had limited access to the school, most information came to the council through the two teachers, they say. With Cavey having promised to vote for Natzke, Arroyo-Wanzung emerged as the council’s de facto leader. By the end of February, two parents were firmly supporting Natzke but the rest were leaning against him.
On Friday, Feb. 23, the council met to interview Natzke one last time. The meeting was long and tense, but for Cavey, the worst was yet to come. “I got called from that interview,” she says, ” to be told that my father had just died. And that the nursing home had been trying to call me all morning. I left the building in a daze.”
On Saturday, while Cavey helped her mother and brother with funeral arrangements, the council met to review information and make a decision before the official vote.
That afternoon, Arroyo-Wanzung called her exhausted and in tears to say that after going around and around for six hours, the council had given up. Some parents had shifted sides, and now even she had lost her nerve. While there were just enough votes to oust Natzke, she couldn’t face the public as part of a divided council — not after everything the members had been through. “Enough was enough already with all of our lives being torn apart. … They were just going to vote him in,” Cavey recalls.
That evening, Cavey ran into a friend at a cub scout dinner for her eight-year-old son. “I’m crying my eyes out. I know I’m grieving for my Dad, yet all I’m saying is, ‘My council caved, my council caved.'”
The same night Arroyo-Wanzung attended a banquet sponsored by the Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum, where Interim School Board member Adela Coronado-Greeley was speaking. They arrived at the same time, and, pausing to greet each other, Arroyo-Wanzung broke the news.
“‘I told her ‘No!'” Coronado-Greeley recalls. “This was an opportunity to bring the changes they wanted to the school, to make the difference and … please not to give up the fight.'”
Later that night, Coronado-Greeley spoke of the need to improve public education — eloquently, Arroyo-Wanzung thought. And when the speech came to the importance of persevering in that mission, despite the hardships, the speaker turned her gaze on the teacher from Spry.
“My husband said, ‘Mildred, she’s talking to you.'”
“So now Mildred is beside herself,” says Cavey. “She calls me Sunday morning at 8 o’clock. She said that the only thing that she thought could turn us around is if I called all of the council members, except the two she knew weren’t going to budge, and get them to change their minds.”
Cavey’s support for the principal confused them, Arroyo-Wanzung says. “They felt like ‘Well, why is she voting yes, and he’s doing all these things?'”
Cavey got on the phone and stayed on until 5 o’clock that night. “My family was so mad at me. Because by now they were thinking I was totally crazy with this reform and council thing. They wanted me back. Whoever their mother had been, they no longer knew her.”
At last, she had lined up the votes. But there was a condition. “They said, ‘Mrs. Cavey, we understand that you’re going to vote yes. And we think we understand why you’re going to vote yes. We will vote no — if you are there with us. You have to be there with us. We have to be together.”
She was willing, but there was a problem: “The vote was scheduled for 3 o’clock [the next] afternoon. So was my father’s wake.”
“I called my mother, I said ‘Mom, is there anyway we can push the funeral [up] an hour?’ I know my mom was ready to kill me, too. But she did it.”
Over 400 people jammed the Spry auditorium that Monday afternoon. “Every teacher in the school was down there,” Cavey recalls.
Spry’s council selected Carlos Azcoitia as principal in 1994. Azcoitia would help them relieve overcrowding, start all-day kindergarten and preschool programs, and increase parent involvement.
With feelings running high, the council feared for its safety, she says. To speed up the meeting and to avoid any missteps that might call the vote’s legality into question, Arroyo-Wanzung had scripted the proceedings—who would make the motion, the order votes would be cast and so on. “And as soon as the vote was over, the meeting was going to adjourn and we were off that stage,” says Cavey.
In a 6-3 vote —one more than needed for a majority—Natzke was denied his contract. The audience sat in a not-yet-comprehending silence while the council made a hasty exit out a side door. Drained, Arroyo-Wanzung and her husband reached their car, only to find a side window smashed.
“It gets worse than that,” says Cavey. Over the next month, the principal freed up some teachers to organize on his behalf, she says, and busloads of students headed off during school hours to picket central office. Children passed out flyers in the hallway. Some teachers even arranged for a school boycott, turning students back at the door, recalls Gonzalez-Engelskirchen of District 5.
The principal stripped Arroyo-Wanzung of her administrative position and sent her back to the classroom.
“Mildred Arroyo-Wanzung was the one person responsible for my leaving,” says Natzke. “She led the council.”
According to a study by the Consortium on Chicago School Research, at a number of disadvantaged schools, including Spry, teachers were instrumental in ousting the principal. In middle-class schools, parents appeared more likely to lead the opposition, the study noted.
“The teacher is the connection for the staff and the connection for the parents, whether we want to say so or not,” Arroyo-Wanzung insists. “The parents were looking to me.”
Of 276 councils that had to vote on principal contracts that year, 50 chose not to renew, but at least one council later reversed its decision. Within a week, Natzke’s supporters began calling for a revote.
When the Spry council went into closed session the following week to begin principal selection, nearly 100 parents stood outside the doors chanting “Out! Out! Out!” the New York Times reported. “It was a double demand,” the newspaper explained, “that the council members come out and address them and, while they were at it, that they resign their posts.”
All the councils in District 5 that ousted their principals faced controversy, but none more than Spry and Burns elementary, according to Gonzalez-Engelskirchen, who now directs the Chicago office of the Illinois Administrator’s Academy. Those two schools had “principals who had been there for years and were sort of father figures if you will. People felt attached to them, they felt an emotional bond.”
Before reform, central office rarely removed a principal, and then only in response to intense community pressure. Where communities fought unsuccessfully to retain principals, “the parents felt disenfranchised” she observes, noting the irony, given that the intent of the Reform Act was to empower parents.
What frustrated Natzke and his supporters the most, the former principal says, is that the council refused to state its reasons for dismissing him. Desperately seeking a new job that spring, he had to explain his departure from Spry. “When I would say, ‘I’m not getting a contract, and I don’t know why.’ People would say, ‘Well, sure.'”
Cavey says the council considered spelling out its reasons but feared a lawsuit. In addition, School Board attorney Dempsey advised against it.
Never having heard an explanation, Natzke suspects he lost the job because he is white. “That’s the only reason there could have been.”
A number of ousted principals and their supporters would accuse councils of racism. The media spotlighted predominantly Hispanic councils that had denied contracts to white principals. However, a subsequent Designs for Change study found that white principals were not discriminated against.
When it came to hiring, however, councils were more likely than the old regime to select principals whose race matched that of the school community. Between 1989 and 1992, the percentage of minority principals rose from 40 to 56 percent. “Which made the principalship more reflective of the school system,” notes Hess. “Was it racist? Only if you think reversing imbalances was racist.”
The Spry council eventually did chose a Hispanic candidate. “They realized, to put the school back together, they had to have someone who could speak the language,” Cavey explains. But she notes that the six finalists were racially diverse—one African American, two white and three Hispanic.
The council decided to follow to the letter the principal selection process laid out by reform groups, Cavey says—from surveying parents and teachers to writing interview questions. One Sunday afternoon, the two teachers spread out 60 resumes on the dining room table of the human resource director for CNA insurance, who was helping councils through a business civic group.
At the start, members agreed that they would disqualify any candidate whom any of them knew on a personal level, says Cavey. “We felt that the political climate was so hot that the process had to be pure.”
They introduced the finalists to the faculty, who picked Domingo Trujillo, now Region 2 education officer, as their top choice, according to Cavey. Candidate Tommye Brown, later principal of Englewood High School, scored points with the council for his strength on discipline, and Darlene McClendon, now principal of Northside Learning Center High School, for her strength on curriculum, says Cavey.
In the end, the council unanimously selected Carlos Azcoitia, now director of the board’s office of vocational education, because he had the best balance of desired qualities, she says.
Azcoitia’s contract began in July of 1990, but central office sent him over to Spry in April to serve as interim principal. Natzke, along with four teachers, had been suspended for a month without pay for their inappropriate activities. Meanwhile, Natzke had landed the principalship at Clay Elementary, in the city’s far southeast corner.
Energy exuding from his 6-foot-1-inch frame, Azcoitia, then 38, jumped into his new position with no concern about the school’s heated politics.
Controversy just meant that the council was shaking up the status quo—a good sign, he thought. He wanted a neighborhood school with problems; he liked to solve problems. He had seen the Spry council on television, declaring before the cameras they would never re-vote. He liked their determination. “All of those elements were very attractive to me,” he recalls.
“You have to be crazy,” he says co-workers told him.
While disruptions at the school died down quickly after Natzke’s suspension, the tension remained, teachers say. “September rolled around and … people weren’t talking to each other,” remembers 3rd-grade teacher Mary Grey.
Some staff simply refused to cooperate with the upstart newcomer. At one staff meeting, Azcoitia made a pointed appeal, says bilingual coordinator Nilda Medina. “He said, since he didn’t know anybody there, he was willing to work with everybody, but if people had a problem with that, there was such a thing as an administrative transfer.”
Over the next several years, some 20 teachers would depart. “Some left on their own. In some cases, I was after them because they were not delivering for students,” he says.
For other teachers, the new leadership brought cohesiveness, an openness to new ideas and an exciting sense of the possibilities. “It was invigorating,” says science lab teacher Chuck Buzek. “Basically, Carlos just got in the pilot seat and took off, and we were on a ride.”
The new principal’s first priority: relieve overcrowding. With help from a council member, he found four classrooms to rent at a nearby Catholic school.
The School Board, considering other options for the property, turned his proposal down; Azcoitia wasn’t fazed. He sent Cavey and another parent to a School Board meeting to repeat the request. A nervous Cavey got through her two-minute presentation. “Sure enough, we got a lease contract for four classrooms,” she says.
“What I learned about leadership is, never accept no for an answer,” she explains. “It was a great concept.”
That done, the board more readily approved Azcoitia’s other requests for space: rooms at a nearby Boys and Girls Club, more at a neighboring school and a temporary structure out back.
Then, inspecting Spry’s student rolls, he found 200 children who lived outside the attendance area. At the end of the year, they would transfer out.
For Medina, those efforts meant going from morning and afternoon classes of 42 kindergartners each—where “I did a lot of crying”—to a single all-day class of 30. “It was still difficult, but I could handle 30,” she says.
If Azcoitia seemed a knight in shining armor, new state and federal money was his steed.
Prior to reform, central office controlled state money earmarked for low-income students. When the law shifted that money to schools, Spry’s council suddenly could afford many long-awaited programs, including an all-day kindergarten and a science lab.
Azcoitia helped Spry win grants to start two schools-within-a-school, one which would split off in 1996 and further reduce overcrowding.
Spry also signed on to a short-term, federally funded School Board program, Project CANAL (for Creating a New Approach to Learning), that provided training in whole-school change, shared decision making and, to teachers’ delight, money for much-needed classroom supplies.
spry4.jpg (6185 bytes)
Librarian and bilingual coordinator Mildred Arroyo-Wanzung talks with students in front of the library’s storybook scenery. designed and partally funded through a recent School Board initative pairing schools with business partners.
“Oh, wow! We’re being treated like professionals!” Cavey recalls the general feeling. “The infusion of money helped bring everybody back together,” as did Azcoitia’s efforts at team-building, she adds.
Parents’ skepticism regarding the new principal also faded quickly, according to Juanita Salas, a teachers aide at Spry who had supported Natzke. She fondly remembers parents coming out of their houses to help Azcoitia and a team of volunteers pick garbage out of the alleyways and paint over graffiti. “He was beautiful,” she says.
“It’s endemic in the Chicago system that people say, ‘This too shall pass.'”
Norman Crandus, Spry case manager
Community involvement became Azcoitia’s signature. Under his leadership, the council set up a safety committee that met weekly with police to report vandalism, drug dealing and violence. An abandoned car lot adjacent to the school became a neighborhood playground. After school and weekend programs abounded—English as a Second Language, sewing and French for the parents, tutoring and soccer for the kids.
All these activities were aimed at improving student learning, says Azcoitia. For one, having parents in the building and playground made the school safer. Two, parent attendance at school activities was “like having people in a church, you have a captive audience.” He and his staff could provide tips on monitoring homework, bedtimes and television viewing.
Azcoitia had just signed his second four-year contract in the spring of 1994 when he got a call from the new CPS superintendent, Argie Johnson. She had visited Spry, he says, and wanted someone to teach other councils to partner with the community. She asked him to accept a position as assistant superintendent of the Office of School Reform. He saw the job as a way of extending the work he had begun at Spry, but he was unwilling to abandon his school on short- notice. He turned her down.
But Johnson kept calling—all summer long. Azcoitia finally accepted in October 1994. “How many times can you say no?” he says with a laugh.
Teachers say they were surprised and saddened by his announcement. “I idolized him,” Arroyo- Wanzung says. “I thought he was everything I had wanted in a principal, and now he’s leaving us.”
Although widely considered one of the great success stories of the early reform movement, Spry’s reading test scores increased only incrementally during Azcoitia’s tenure—from 11 percent at or above national norms in 1990 to 19 percent in 1994.
In Azcoitia’s opinion, years of severe overcrowding had limited what teachers could accomplish, leading them to lower expectations for students. “There was a culture you have to revitalize. It’s hard.”
By 1995, test scores in the system had failed to meet public expectations. Persistent low achievement, financial crises and the threat of teacher strikes drove the state Legislature to amend the Reform Act. It handed control of the flagging system to the mayor, giving him a big assist by untangling school finances and clipping the wings of employee unions.
Suddenly, Argie Johnson was out as superintendent, and Paul Vallas, the mayor’s budget director, was in as chief executive officer. Taking a page from the mayor’s notebook, Vallas immediately targeted waste.
“The first office they closed was mine, the Office of School Reform,” says Azcoitia. “And I’m out without a job.”
However, Vallas quickly discovered that local school council elections were coming up and nobody knew how to run them, Azcoitia says. Several weeks after Vallas fired him, the CEO asked him to head up School and Community Relations. He since has become deputy education officer.
Before Azcoitia left Spry, he encouraged his two assistant principals—Cavey was one—to apply for his job. Cavey hesitated. “I don’t think I’m ready,” she told him. But then she figured she could finish the remainder of his contract, just for the experience. But in 1998, she signed her own four-year contract. “I had a sense of the momentum that Carlos had started, and that I could keep it going.”
As far as the school had come since 1989, much work remained. Spry still lacked an organized curriculum, Cavey says. While Azcoitia had brought in speakers on innovative instructional methods to inspire the faculty, the hard work of carrying out that vision was left to her.
As principal, Cavey would focus on improving curriculum and instruction—an effort that would be both supported and stymied by an ambitious new central administration. Principal Mary Cavey jokes with 7th-grader Amanda Diaz.
While the 1988 reforms had a large impact on individual schools “that had the courage to take risks,” she says, the 1995 reforms “really started moving the system” with school construction and repair and a stronger focus on student achievement. When the mayor’s School Board came out with a set of academic standards, a revision of work begun under Johnson, “We were ecstatic,” says Cavey. “We had been asking for this for 20 years.”
Spry bought into a School Board program called IMPACT, which trained teachers to devise questions and activities that promote higher-level thinking. On their own, Spry teachers chose a new reading series that matched state and district goals and has a parallel Spanish edition, which helps bilingual students transition smoothly into the English program.
Last spring, Spry’s reading scores rose to 27 percent at or above national norms on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills, continuing a slow upward trend.
Now, though, the school is feeling pinched for funds. Project CANAL money is long gone, and teachers find themselves again short on basic supplies and instructional materials.
Spry’s council had lobbied for a new neighborhood school to relieve overcrowding. But when it opened in 1995 and a school-within-a-school spun off in 1996, Spry lost state and federal money that is based on enrollment.
Recently, the board ended funding for IMPACT, and Cavey is unable to provide this intensive training to her new teachers.
“It knocks the wind out of the principal’s sails,” says Spry case manager Norman Crandus, of the fleeting nature of board-funded programs. “It’s endemic in the Chicago system that people say, ‘This too shall pass.'”
Meanwhile, the mayor’s School Board has charged headlong into developing a host of new programs. Cavey and her staff praise the quality, but feel overwhelmed by the quantity.
Cavey darts around her office, holding up booklets and binders: new standards, new lesson plan format, a character education program, coaching books for state and local tests, a language arts program called Read/Write Well, and, just this fall, massive binders with lesson plans at every grade level in each of four subject areas for every school day. “They’re overwhelmed,” Cavey says of her teachers. “I’m really, really worried about that.”
Spry also is among the first Chicago public schools to take on the challenge of including more special education students in regular classrooms, a mandate handed down by the federal courts.
The school has improvement goals of its own, too. Teahcers are learning strategies to reach students with a variety of learning styles, are integrating fine arts into the cirriculum and are drawing up a schedule for meeting district and stage goals in time for testing.
“It’s one thing after another,” says bilingual coordinator Nina Medina. “We’re bombarded with so much information. It’s hard.”
With too many balls to juggle, “just showing teachers anything new can turn them off-no matter how outstanding the program,” says Cavey. “And I understand.”
Struggling through 10 years of school reform has taught her two things: Resistance to change is natural, and significant improvement comes gradually. “That’s what so hard: when you’ve got vision, and you just want to get there, and you can’t,” she says. “You have to plan it out in little steps so that everybody can get there with you.”
For the two teachers who spurred Spry’s turnaround, the slow pace of progress and the workload are often discouraging. “And sometimes I get angry at myself because I want to back down and back off and say, ‘I need a breather,” says Arroyo-Wanzung. “But my conscience won’t let me.”
“I have to always strive for better for our kids,” she continues. “We have to. We all have to. And if we don’t, we do sacrifice their education and their lives.”