The power of a local school council to select a principal and place its choice on a four-year performance contract is the most distinguishing feature of Chicago school reform. The power is replete with opportunity, since a good principal can buoy a school, but it also has its perils. “If you make a bad choice, you’re stuck with that person for four years,” remarks Beverly Tunney, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association.
The stakes are high for any school–and 208 will be picking or retaining principals by June 30–but they are especially so for one weathering choppy waters. So it was in 1996 with the struggling Lewis Elementary School in Austin. Though battered by turmoil, the Lewis Local School Council (LSC) managed to pick a new principal by as careful a process as any school in the city, drawing respect from diverse observers and uniting a community.
Lewis School, a sprawling facility with more than 900 students split between a main building at 1431 N. Leamington and a branch at 5035 W. North, was among the first Chicago schools put on remediation for exceptionally low test scores. At the time, the LSC was at odds with Principal Pamela Dukes. “The problem was that when they said, ‘Jump,’ she didn’t say, ‘How high?'” recounts Diana Dudley, then a teacher representative on the LSC. But there were more serious allegations. In July 1995, Schools Supt. Argie Johnson, in her final act in office, fired Dukes, charging unsatisfactory performance and failure to maintain satisfactory accounting records. (Dukes, now a regional special education coordinator, didn’t return phone calls.)
A newly installed central administration sent Glenvester Garrett to serve as interim principal. As the LSC began the process of hiring a new permanent principal, Garrett expressed an interest in the job and then allegedly went beyond the acceptable. In January 1996, he and Stewart Weinstein, his assistant principal, were arrested and charged with bribery and official misconduct for allegedly trying to bribe two LSC members to win Garrett a contract. (Garrett and Weinstein currently are assigned to central office, pending the outcome of their cases.)
With Garrett and Weinstein gone, the LSC plowed on with new determination to pick a good principal. “We wanted our school back to normal,” says Dudley.
A reconfigured council, less scrappy than the one that had feuded with Dukes, formed an 18-person committee to set parameters; the committee included council members and extra teachers, parents and community members. In early February 1996, the committee sat down in the Lewis lunchroom with three board administrators–Pat Harvey, then chief accountability officer; Carlos Azcoitia, then director of school and community relations; and Kenneth Staral, a Region 2 administrator–and Julie Woestehoff, executive director of the reform group Parents United for Responsible Education. The LSC listened politely to the advice that was proffered, “but then we put together our own plan,” says LSC parent member Delois Daniels, a customer service representative.
At a subsequent meeting, the selection committee narrowed its criteria for a new leader, deciding to look for someone with a college degree in the liberal arts, computer literacy, the ability to collaborate, a connection to outside organizations, and knowledge of school reform, school-based budgeting and curriculum.
Some councils market principal openings widely, buying ads in daily and suburban papers and in the national journal Education Week. But the Lewis LSC limited its search, to save money and because some members felt the sooner a selection could be made the better. The LSC posted a notice in the CPS e-mail system and placed ads in the Chicago Sun-Times and in two neighborhood newspapers, Windy City Word and Austin Voice. LSC community representative Charles Smith, a chemist on disability with blindness, marched his way into the Voice offices and “shmoozed me into running an ad for free,” laughs Associate Editor Brad Cummings. The Lewis campaign cost all of $38, says LSC Chair Art Winfrey, a postal worker.
The e-mail, advertisements and word of mouth produced 38 resumes. The applicants were mainly assistant principals, counselors, central office bureaucrats and teachers–all from public schools–holding the mandatory state-issued Type 75 administrative certificate. Twenty-six worked in the city and 11 in the suburbs; and one was an out-of-stater intending to study at the University of Chicago. The pool included Gladys Pruitt, an accountability coordinator and former assistant principal at Phillips High School who’d been assigned to succeed Garrett at Lewis.
For three days in March, LSC members pored over resumes, giving each applicant a rating of 1 to 5 on each criterion. The 11 top scorers were scheduled for interviews.
Held over three days in late March at the LaFollette Park fieldhouse, the interviews required each candidate to give introductory remarks and answer questions the LSC had prepared in advance. “What do you know about the Lewis School?” the questions went. “How do you create a cooperative climate among teachers? Would you agree to the ability-grouping of students? Cite an example of moral leadership?” At the end, each prospect was handed a piece of paper and asked to write down his or her ideas for improving Lewis.
When the council cogitated on the 11 semi-finalists, “We all came down the same way on people,” says Delois Daniels. Soon the field was narrowed to five: Emma Kerr, the assistant principal at Paderewski Elementary School in Lawndale; Stephen Jones, Sr., who’d been assistant principal at a couple elementary facilities; Elliot Collazo, another assistant principal; Patricia Ann Johnson, a coordinator at the board-run Teachers for Chicago program; and Gladys Pruitt. The finalists submitted to a second interview, and LSC members visited the contenders on the job, a step hampered because the Ford Taurus owned by Charles Smith broke down and couldn’t ferry everyone around.
Board guidelines say that an LSC needs to offer a performance contract to someone by April 15 of the year in which a regular vacancy occurs, but officials are willing to cut some slack. “In particular situations, like at Lewis, a council will need a longer period of time,” says Carlos Azcoitia, who is now deputy chief education officer.
After the school day on May 7, the Lewis LSC hosted an open forum featuring the finalists. Some 50 people attended, including Percy Giles, the 37th Ward alderman. Each aspirant, appearing separately, delivered an opening statement, took questions for 20 minutes and then gave a summary statement. “We were looking to see how they would handle themselves, whether they could think on the spot and answer a question directly instead of just bull-shitting,” remembers Charles Smith.
Stephen Jones, with his military bearing, turned off some council stalwarts who favored a looser style. Collazo said he’d like to conduct LSC meetings partly in Spanish, though only 10 percent of Lewis’ student body is Hispanic. Kerr impressed Delois Daniels when she lifted marbles out of a bowl to demonstrate ways she would distinguish Lewis, though others were less enthusiastic about her. “Kerr had tunnel vision,” says Smith, “and she had little experience in curriculum and literacy.”
After the forum, LSC members were most enthusiastic about Johnson–“a woman with a plan,” remarks Daniels–and Pruitt, whom they’d already seen up close. “Pruitt was more down to earth, and she knew Lewis,” says Art Winfrey. Dudley, the teacher rep, favored Pruitt for the order and discipline she had brought to Lewis. A week later, the LSC voted 7 to 0 (one vote more than necessary) to give Pruitt a contract.
Informed of Pruitt’s selection in writing, the rejected candidates took the bad news well, though Johnson says, “Sure I was disappointed. Whenever I’m playing, I’m playing to win.” Now a regional instruction coordinator, she has been a principal finalist at several other schools and still harbors the “ultimate goal” of persuading an LSC to hire her. Likewise, Jones, now an assistant principal at the J.N. Thorpe School, has submitted his papers at 10 schools and will do so again. “You always think you’re going to be the person,” he says.
“It was hell picking a principal,” Daniels recalls. “My house was a shambles, and I almost lost my husband. We were spending so much time on this, he and Art’s wife thought we were doing something we shouldn’t have been doing.”
Winfrey says the time and energy were well spent. “It was done right. You had the parents, the teachers and the community participating. Everybody was involved, and it came out fine.”
Remarks Azcoitia, “Going through the process helped stabilize Lewis.”