About 30 people attended a community forum Wednesday night held to discuss the suspension of 38 students at Austin Polytechnical Academy who protested the firings of seven teachers.
But despite the reasoned but spirited dialogue that took place among students, community members and administrators, the educators were no closer to getting their jobs back than they were at the start of the three-hour meeting held at Austin Town Hall.
Earlier this month, students staged sit-ins and walkouts to protest the firings of the teachers who previously had earned satisfactory evaluations.
Fabby Williams, the interim principal who joined APA last October, performed new evaluations and gave the teachers unsatisfactory evaluations — leading to the teachers’ termination.
When the students returned to class after the protests, Williams handed down out-of-school suspensions ranging from two to 10 days.
The suspensions were later rescinded – but some students complained they already had served them.
Student Cuauhtemoc Mendoza, one of only a handful of suspended students who attended the forum, said the suspensions were not fair because they were not consistent with the school’s code of conduct.
Mendoza said the first walkout wasn’t recorded by the administration as a violation — only the subsequent student sit-in was.
So Mendoza said protesting students should have received an in-school suspension for the sit-in — a punishment consistent with the school code of conduct.
At the forum, moderated by Ayesha Jacoll, program manager of Youth Outreach Services, Principal Williams took criticisms in stride, and expressed contrition about the suspensions.
Williams also emphasized his open-door policy for students and said he would be a greater presence at the school.
However, Williams doubled down on his decision to fire the teachers.
“If I didn’t make the changes based on my classroom observations, then I wasn’t doing my job,” Williams said.
Williams said he had a professional interest in making sure the under-performing school turned around. Austin Polytech Academy has been on academic probation since last fall.
In the current school year, only 2 percent of APA students met state standards for science. For reading and math, only 8 percent and 11 percent of students met state standards, respectively.
“If we continue to do the same things over and over again, we will get the same results,” Williams said. “That’s not OK with me. I’m still vested in the school. That’s why I make the tough decisions.”
Cheyenne Sims, a junior at the school, sharply rebuked Williams, who is leaving at year’s end to become a principal in south suburban Bolingbrook.
“You haven’t been here long enough to know what’s best for the students,” Sims said.
Ald. Jason C. Ervin (28th) said he was “thoroughly embarrassed” by the lack of communication about the suspensions between the school administration and the Austin community.
“These changes cannot occur in a vacuum,” Ervin said during the forum. “Suspending a bunch of kids because they don’t understand [why their teachers were fired] is not fair.”
Williams said he sent letters out to APA parents when the school was placed on probation back in October. Williams also said “absolutely zero” APA parents attended subsequent meetings held about how to improve the school’s fortunes in light of the probation placement.
Dwanye Truss, a community advocate who attended the forum, said because Williams was leaving Austin Polytech Academy so soon after he arrived, the out-of-school suspensions were “morally wrong.”
“You hurt these kids, and you’re going to something else,” Truss said. “If you weren’t going to commit to these kids, then you shouldn’t damage people’s professional careers and you shouldn’t damage kids’ futures.”
Of the seven teachers fired, five received “do not hire” designations, meaning the teachers cannot work for Chicago Public Schools ever again.
Williams said he was unaware of the policy during the forum.
“I do not know anything about the ‘do not hire’ list. I didn’t know there was a ‘do not hire’ list,” Williams said. “I didn’t put them there.”
When questioned further, Williams said the criteria for teacher termination was established jointly by the Chicago Teachers Union and by Chicago Public School board, and re-iterated that he didn’t know about the policy.
But in an interview after the forum, Williams said he was, in fact, aware of the “do not hire” list but did not put the teachers on the list himself. Williams said he was unaware of who did, or who was responsible for doing so.
Akeisha Craven, chief area officer of Chicago Public School Area 19, said a new principal would be selected by June 30.