Parents and staff at Gunsaulus Scholastic Academy praised and defended Principal Amy Kotz at last week’s Chicago Board of Education meeting.
School representatives brought letters of support for Kotz, who’s been under fire for making changes at the school since taking over in 2008. They say some teachers are impeding Kotz’s attempts to improve the school. An article in the October Chicago Teachers Union Journal had Local School Council (LSC) members and teachers up-in-arms.
Gunsaulus, a magnet school located in Brighton Park, has undergone changes in student population and administration. Latinos make up 69 percent of the 709 students, and 16 percent are African-American. During its first 80 years, Gunsaulus had only five principals, but has seen three more since 2003.
The article claimed the principal-staff relationships at the school were abusive. Staff members said they were working under unbearable conditions, and teachers were being forced out by the principal for speaking out against her.
Helene Dubin, a literacy specialist at the school, said she was shocked by what she read.
“Many of us have been silent far too long about the misrepresentation of the atmosphere at the school and especially the portrayal of Principal Amy Kotz,” said Dubin, who is in her second year at Gunsaulus. “I met Ms. Kotz two years ago when she was hired by the LSC and was immediately impressed by her philosophy, education and desire to make Gunsaulus a better place.”
Kotz mandated guided reading programs, an approach where teachers work with smaller groups of students to help them become fluent readers, because they were not being implemented and brought the bilingual and special education programs back into state compliance, Dubin said. Kotz hired a bilingual school clerk this year to assist parents whose first language is Spanish.
Dubin said Kotz encourages teachers to visit other schools, attend conferences and pursue national accreditation. Kotz started the first-ever Family Literacy Night, and another literacy night is set for December.
Dubin said she and other teachers tried to contact the Chicago Teachers Union but received no response.
“The union and our union representative have chosen to ignore our requests to be heard,” Dubin said.
Rosemaria Genova, spokeswoman for Chicago Teachers Union, said they are aware of the situation, and there may have been a lack of communication with school staff. Genova said that union officials met with the principal, staff and Chicago Public Schools (CPS) officials last year and again this fall.
“The Union has been involved in the situation at the very beginning,” said Genova. “The Union has led the charge in getting the matter resolved.”
Jody Esco, Local School Council representative, said they are in the midst of a “season of turmoil,” but stressed the progress made rather than personal differences, which can negatively impact the students.
“We have very excellent stability and relationships, “ said Esco. “We just want to get back to the business of educating our students.”
The principal started Gunsaulus’ first band program, which Esco said helps build the children’s self-esteem. The program is offered to fifth- through eight-grade students.
Esco said she already sees the improvement. She said one student who was not interested in anything now loves playing the instrument and is a different student now.
Luz Amaro, a parent of four Gunsaulus students, who also attended to Oct. 28th Board of Education meeting to show her support for Kotz, said she is upset over the article in the Journal.
“The principal has done nothing but positive things in our school in implementing certain security rules, which have helped the students,” said Amaro.
Kotz, a nationally board certified teacher and Urban Leadership doctoral student at the University of Illinois-Chicago, said some existing programs weren’t helping the children succeed. Kotz was unable to attend the board meeting but agreed to an interview.
Kotz opened an on-site pre-school for children ages 3-5, which she said is “vital to the school community.”
“I’m driven by what’s best for the children,” said Kotz. “I treat children as if they were my own.”
In response to critics’ complaints that Kotz fired 19 teachers without cause and called the police on parents for trespassing, she said the school should be respected and students come first.
“Principals just can’t fire people,” said Kotz. “There is a process. I want children to feel safe.”
Kotz uses her nine years of experience as a classroom teacher, year as a reading specialist and research-based models in leading. Kotz said she promotes high standards and encourages involvement from parents and community members.
“This year we have 20 to 30 parent volunteers,” said Kotz. “This was not the case before. The more children see their parents involved, the more successful we’ll all be.”
The Chicago School Board President, Michael Scott, said that he was aware of the situation at Gunsaulus.
“Real attempts are being made to reconcile the differences between teachers and administration,” said Scott at the board meeting. “The situation is improving, and I applaud your courage.”
CPS officials did not return calls for additional comment.