Headlines

Rise & Shine: Tony Bennett faces ethics charge over emails

Former State Superintendent Tony Bennett was back in the news, facing an ethics complaint:

  • Indiana’s inspector general filed an ethics charge against Tony Bennett for campaigning from his office in 2012. (Chalkbeat)
  • Bennett: I made every effort to follow the rules. (Indy Star)
  • Bennett’s email to staff said to watch Ritz tape for “stupidity and inaccuracy.” (Journal Gazette)
  • Senate minority leader Tim Lanane: We need to know what happened. (NWI, WISH-TV)
  • IG: Computer records show Bennett did political work on state time. (The Statehouse File, StateImpact, AP, WIBC)

The after effects of Wednesday’s state board shootout continue to reverberate:

  • John Krull: Ritz, state board and the GOP need to act like adults. (The Statehouse File)
  • Brad Oliver gives his take on state board explosion in letter. (WISH-TV)
  • StateImpact kept its recorder rolling when the video feed was cut at Wednesday’s state board meeting. (StateImpact)

In other education news:

  • Tully: New award for IPS teachers offers $25,000 prize. (Indy Star)
  • Colorado schools, failing five straight years, could lose accreditation. (EdNews Colorado)
  • As more parents opt out of tests, what will it mean for schools? (Atlantic)

School Closings

Chicago schools look beyond closures to tackle declining student population

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel
Francis Parkman Elementary School in the Fuller Park neighborhood is one casualty of the 2013 school closings in Chicago. It's still vacant and boarded up.

The Chicago Board of Education plans to vote Wednesday on a new policy that would target underenrolled schools for help rather than closure.

The policy would bring Chicago Public Schools in compliance with a state law enacted in August requiring the school district to adopt a policy addressing schools deemed underenrolled and list potential interventions for schools losing enrollment.

School district spokesman Michael Passman wrote in a statement that the policy continues work the district has already begun to back schools wrestling with dwindling or low enrollment, including $15 million in recent funding for such schools and a new application process for schools to add programs to attract more students.

“We are fully committed to providing the supplemental funding and support that schools with low enrollment need to offer students a high-quality education,” Passman said.

Five years after staging the biggest mass school closing in American history, the district appears to be backing away from shuttering schools as a first response to underenrollment.  

However, the prospect of more closings provokes apprehension, especially in Chicago’s African-American community, which bore the brunt of the 2013 closings. Indeed, the district is currently phasing out several underenrolled high schools in Englewood, a predominantly black South Side neighborhood.

Chicago Public Schools, while on better financial footing than in 2013, is still wrestling with dramatically shrinking enrollment and could have some tough choices to make. A report released in September projects enrollment to decline 5 percent by 2021, from 371,000 to 352,000 students.

Parents, students and community organizers have vociferously opposed closing schools.

“What we want to do is make sure that school closures in Chicago are the last resort, and use innovative strategies to keep schools as anchors in the community as much as possible,” said Cecile Carroll, co-director of Humboldt Park community group Blocks Together, emphasizing studies showing the 2013 closings hurt students both academically and emotionally.

Carroll, a community organizer and public school parent, served on a 2008 state task force that reviewed Chicago’s school closings process and long-term facilities planning.

The school district’s new policy defines an underenrolled school as one using less than 70 percent of the building’s ideal capacity, which the school district determines via its utilization formula. An underenrolled school must also have experienced two consecutive years of enrollment declines of more than 10 percent, and not have already received any of the programming interventions stipulated in the policy.

Among the measures the new policy suggests to keep the schools open: Redrafting attendance boundaries, renting extra space to a government agency or other entity, halting other school expansion plans that could siphon away students, and collaborating with schools on strategies such as adding programs and crafting joint-use agreements for their campuses.

The district already co-locates some  schools on the same campus. The Little Village/Lawndale High School Campus contains four autonomous high schools, including Infinity Math Science and Technology High School and World Language Academy High School, both Level 1+ schools with growing enrollment, and Multicultural Academy of Scholarship and Greater Lawndale High School For Social Justice, both level 2+ schools that have seen enrollment decline in recent years.

Carroll stressed that the district’s enrollment analysis shows thousands of unfilled seats at top-rated schools. Underenrolled schools need help marketing themselves, she said, suggesting the district could help schools improve their websites and their social media presence to publicize “great things happening in their building.”

“Being able to get rid of any stigma that’s been around the school will be important,” she said.

Distraught

Update: Principal’s removal from Manhattan high school stirs protest from parents and students

PHOTO: Reema Amin

More than 600 people signed an online petition urging the city Department of Education to bring Principal John Wenk back to Lower Manhattan Arts Academy as of Monday, before some concerns could be quelled about the fate of the school’s arts programs.

Over the weekend, rumors began floating over social media that Wenk, the school’s founding principal, had been fired for pushing back against potential cuts to the programs, which included dance, acting, visual arts, drawing, music classes and art history as of last school year.

The petition was created Friday, the same day Wenk was officially removed as principal, and also called to save the school’s arts classes.

On Monday, Department of Education spokesman Doug Cohen said in emailed statements that Dr. Wenk “was not terminated”  but rather had agreed to resign by December 31 prior to an arbitrator’s hearing “based on performance and misconduct as principal.” Cohen added, “There are no plans to cut any arts programming at the school.”

Cohen did not elaborate on what the misconduct was but said that Wenk has been reassigned to the central office. “We’ve made the decision to reassign Dr. Wenk in the interest of students and families,” Cohen said, “and the superintendent is providing ongoing support to ensure a smooth transition.”

But Monday night, parents remained upset at news of Wenk’s reassignment and how it had been handled. 

Former student Jose Camacho launched the petition over the weekend after he saw social media posts about Wenk’s departure, then confirmed the news with people connected to the school.

It wasn’t clear if petition-signers were aware of the official reason Wenk was reassigned, but Camacho said his own attempts at asking school officials for answers were unsuccessful.

Chalkbeat obtained documents with a heading from the state education department’s teacher tenure hearing unit, which list the charges against Wenk. They include his allegedly misusing $80 in school funds, maintaining too large a ratio for classes that integrate general education students and those with disabilities, for not properly staffing some special-education classes, and for assigning multiple paraprofessionals to clerical work instead of to students or classrooms.

In some instances, students’ individualized education plans — commonly known as IEPs — were not fulfilled as required, and the document says Wenk “programmed” students and staff in a way that prioritized the arts over fulfilling mandates laid out in the IEPs.

Wenk also allegedly did not follow instructions or directives from district Executive Superintendent Marisol C. Rosales, though no further description of this alleged “insubordination” is provided. All of the allegations, except for the $80 in misspent funds, occurred since September 2017.

A publicly-listed number for Wenk was not in service, and he could not be reached for comment. The Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the union for principals, did not respond to a request for comment Monday afternoon, before Chalkbeat knew of the specific allegations.

After learning about the charges, Camacho said he still had questions about their validity.  He credited Wenk with allowing students to express themselves and providing the “push to believe in ourselves,” which he said kept him on track to graduation in 2014.

“I went on Change.org, and I started the petition to see if I got the reaction from people that felt the same way,” Camacho said. “And a whole bunch of people started writing to me and signing the petition. I said, ‘Let’s start a protest.’”

Camacho arranged a rally for 4:30 p.m. Monday outside of the school, where about a dozen people showed up.

The petition garnered 500 signatures in one day, according to the website. As of 2:09 p.m. on Monday, there were 612 signatures.

“John Wenk is one of the most supportive educators I’ve ever known,” one supporter wrote on the petition. “He was there for me from the first day when I came up to him and told him I didn’t want to be there until now. He continued to support my family even after I graduated. This is such an injustice.”

Catherine Fitz, who also signed the petition, said her daughter graduated from the school last year. She said Wenk is passionate about the job and has earned admiration from teachers and parents alike.

“It’s strange to me that the founding principal of a high school would be reassigned like this,” Fitz said. “It’s just astounding to me. I don’t understand pulling him out of the school that he created.”

The school’s parents association called an emergency meeting Monday night, where approximately 40 parents, students and alumni crowded into a small art-class room and, at many points, became heated while talking to  District 2 Superintendent Vivian Orlen, who emphasized that the school is not losing its arts program.

Although she said she couldn’t disclose the specific charges, Orlen said, “There is no doubt in my mind that Dr. Wenk touched many of your lives.”

Still, parents blasted the district for not informing them about Wenk’s reassignment. “I shouldn’t find out the principal is gone from my child,” said one mother, to applause from the room. “I should find out from the district.”

“I have to say, I totally understand from a parent’s perspective that you heard it through your child,” Orlen said. But she added that she assumed there were “strong communication channels” between the leadership team and parents.

A parent who identified herself to the room as the school’s PTA president said Wenk came to their meeting last Thursday and informed parents who were there that it was his last day.

Orlen generally described the steps the district follows to find a new principal, which she said will involve getting feedback from parents and school “stakeholders.”