Austin Polytech Students Get Suspensions Rescinded For Protesting Teacher Firings

05/27/2011 09:42 am ET | Updated Jul 26, 2011

The principal at Austin Polytechnical Academy in a struggling West Side neighborhood of Chicago has rescinded the suspensions of 36 students who walked out of classes last week in protest of the proposed firings of many of their teachers.

Unrest about the firing decisions is part of a year-long period of turmoil at the high school, founded as part of a promise of reform and now mired in the district's often painful and confusing attempts at turnaround. The pushback may also be a portent of the type of difficulty the Emanuel administration may face in implementing some of its far-reaching plans at overhauling the school system.

By most standards, Austin Polytech is not performing well. Its attendance rates are low, and few students are reading at grade level. A HuffPost Chicago analysis of the school's ACT scores, taken by its first-ever class of juniors last year, shows that it performed in the bottom quarter of all Chicago high schools on that test.

As a result of its poor performance on various metrics, at the beginning of this year, Austin Polytech joined 288 other Chicago public schools designated as "on probation," a label that is intended to provoke restructuring at the school and ultimately an improvement in test scores. But with more than half of neighborhood schools in the system (i.e. non-charter schools that aren't magnet or selective-enrollment) on probation this school year, the designation has lost some of its punch.

This wasn't supposed to be the fate of Austin Polytech, though. It was founded in 2006 as part of Renaissance 2010, a bold initiative designed to open 100 new schools in the city in the span of six years. The schools were meant to provide a new direction for the system at large, trying innovative models and focusing on specific areas ranging from the arts to the military to African culture to computer science. Austin Polytech was designed to focus on developing high-tech manufacturing skills.

In the beginning of 2010, the Chicago Tribune deemed the Renaissance program a failure, writing that it "has done little to improve the educational performance of the city's school system."

Actually, the schools are all over the map. Some, like the Noble Street charter high schools, are among the best in the city. Austin Polytech is the worst of the Renaissance 2010 schools, and in the bottom tier of schools citywide.

To help shake things up at the school, interim principal Fabby Williams announced that the school would be firing seven of its 30 teachers. Meribah Knight at the Chicago News Cooperative, who has been following the school's fate throughout the year, first reported the news.

After discovering last week that nearly a quarter of their teachers were being dismissed, Austin Polytechnical Academy students decided to take extreme action. Holding secret planning sessions under the guise of a robotics team meeting, they plotted.

First, they gathered signatures of more than half the student body on a petition demanding that the decision be reversed. Then on Monday, at 9 a.m. sharp, despite threats of suspension from school, more than a hundred of the school’s 358 students walked out of their classes and into the street.

A follow-up protest came that Thursday, May 19, when a group of students staged a sit-in in the classroom of one of the fired teachers.

On Friday, 36 students received suspensions for their actions, ranging from two to ten days, according to the Austin Talks blog.

The students objected to their suspensions. They protested before the Chicago Board of Education. Even 28th Ward Alderman Jason Ervin jumped in the fray, saying, curiously, that he should have been notified of the suspensions.

In the end, as the Chicago Sun-Times reports, the school walked back its punishments. Austin Polytech apparently sent a letter to parents saying the suspensions had been rescinded.

But the teachers are still scheduled to be fired, and the students are still opposed. “These actions are not good or fair," Austin Polytech student Cuauhtemoc Mendoza told the Sun-Times, claiming that Williams "dismissed teachers who [were not] bad teachers."

If this situation is any indication, Mayor Rahm Emanuel and new CPS CEO Jean-Claude Brizard will have their work cut out for them on school reform. A big piece of that puzzle for the new leaders is an increased focus on accountability -- part of which means the ability to fire teachers who the system doesn't believe are performing. But if seven firings at one failing high school on the West Side are causing mass walkouts and student protests, pushing for similar pink slips citywide could be a tricky proposition indeed.

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