by troy laraviere (firstname.lastname@example.org)
In July of 2013–along with hundreds of principals across Chicago–I received an email with the subject, “Leadership Launch with Dr. Barbara Byrd-Bennett.” The email implored principals to join Byrd-Bennett “for the comprehensive launch of the Chicago Executive Leadership Academy (CELA).” CELA was the title given to the series of professional development workshops organized by SUPES Academy under their $20+ million no-bid contract with Chicago Public Schools (CPS); a contract that is now under federal investigation. The launch was a huge event, staged at the UIC Forum. It was advertised as an “invite only” affair for which we had to reserve a ticketed seat (see mine above).
The Boiling Point
As expected, the event did not open up with any discussion of the SUPES training. Instead we got what we had come to expect at the start of every principals meeting: talk of an impending budget apocalypse that can only be solved by CPS defaulting on its obligation to provide a secure retirement for its teachers.
The meeting opened up with CPS board member and former school principal, Dr. Mahalia Hines. I’d heard her twice before; her primary function seems to be to tell stories that convince her listeners that Rahm Emanuel actually cares about south and west side children from low-income households. However, during the CELA launch, her comments were aimed at preparing principals for budget austerity. During her talk, she mentioned a couple principals who had written grants and gotten external funding. She praised these principals efforts because, in her words, “You can’t rely on the board to get funding for your schools.” Yes. She actually said those exact words. Having succeeded in convincing many of the best principals in the room to consider looking for more secure employment in the suburbs, she then introduced Barbara Byrd-Bennett who continued the austerity theme with empty corporate speak about principals “leveraging partnerships” to get free or low-cost services for our students.
“Did she really just say that?” I thought.
Did she just tell us that we need to make up for lost funding by “leveraging partnerships?” I imagined Ms. Byrd-Bennett could have used her relationship or leverage with SUPES to get free or low-cost services for CPS, but she did not. In fact, she used 20 million tax-payer dollars taken directly from school budgets to pay SUPES significantly more than their training was worth.
I could not endure the insulting lies and misinformation any longer without responding. It was blatant in-your-face hypocrisy such as this–and its disregard for our children’s learning–that moved me to publicly criticize CPS’s misinformation during a speech at City Hall 10 days after Byrd-Bennett’s performance at the UIC Forum.
Eventually, the meeting turned to SUPES. Byrd-Bennett spent a lot of time praising the program and ended her comments on an foreboding note. She said that if we didn’t like the training we should give them feedback on how to make it better rather than criticizing the program. The comment made me wonder if CPS was spending $20 million on a well-developed mature program or was SUPES field testing a series of embryonic inductions in need of significant modifications? Were they serving us, or were we serving them? I would soon find out.
My Time in SUPES “Training”
When I arrived at my first training session, I picked up the SUPES materials and sat next to a principal who had participated in previous SUPES workshops. I asked her what she thought of it. “A waste of time” was her answer. The workshop was a continuation of CPS’s “Do more with less” theme. The session was filled with CPS talking points about its new “Student Based Budgeting” (SBB) scheme; talking points we’d already heard in a dozen previous meetings. Principals’ chief complaints about SBB was that it slashed their budgets, forced them to increase class size to save money, and pushed them to hire cheaper inexperienced teachers. It was as if our work for children was being deliberately undermined. In fact SBB would be better described as Sabotage Based Budgeting.
Yet there we were once again being insulted by SUPES “master teachers” with CPS budget spin regarding the additional “autonomy” and “freedom” the new system would give us. Later that afternoon we all had to tell our “leadership story.” When each of us was done, every person in the room had to say something complimentary about each story they heard. This was the principal “training” for which Rahm Emanuel’s appointed board of education and CEO spent twenty million taxpayer dollars.
A month later I attended my second SUPES course. It actually went well. I had great conversations with fellow principals and learned a lot from them. Then, at the end of the session, the facilitator announced, “I know I went off script and just let you guys talk, but I felt that was what you needed today.” My disgust returned as I realized the reason the session went so well was because the facilitator ditched the SUPES curriculum and just let principals talk and learn from one another. Did CPS have to pay SUPES $20 million to put principals in a room and let us talk to each other?
The next week Barbara Byrd-Bennett got wind of the fact that principals were getting vocal about their poor assessment of SUPES training. She sent an email giving principals the option to opt-out of the training but stated they needed to opt out with a form they had to send directly to her. Principals I talked to saw it as a threat; “I dare you to send me an opt out letter,” was how most of us read it. I decided to send mine in, but was talked into staying by a CPS official who said she would move me from the “New Principals” group to the “Rising and Achieving” group (you can’t make this stuff up).
I must add at this point that I am not against investing in principal training. My time as an assistant principal under Mr. Rito Martinez and Ms. Alice Henry was the best training I could imagine. During my first year as principal CPS assigned me a coach: retired CPS principal, Ms. Joyce Nakamura. She would meet with me weekly to give me feedback on my plans and processes for the school. Her feedback was extremely helpful in that it always led to practical steps I could take to get school stakeholders involved in school improvement planning and decision making. Her coaching was made even more relevant by the fact that it was provided in the context of my day-to-day work. SUPES training was the opposite of this: prepackaged, underdeveloped, and often irrelevant to the most pressing issues faced by school leaders.
The “master teacher” for my third SUPES session was Mr. Dallas Dancer. It is interesting to note that shortly after that session, Mr. Dancer resigned from SUPES as a result of a mounting controversy regarding his getting paid for his work with SUPES while holding a full time position as Superintendent of Baltimore City Schools.
Mr. Dancer’s session was focused on “Marketing Your School.” He said that perception was even more important than reality; that principals needed to focus on shaping public perception of their schools. Again, the contradictions were enraging. I told the class that when I became a principal we focused on improving our school and enhancing student learning. Without that, there’s nothing to market. I told Mr. Dancer–with all due respect–that CPS officials seemed to be more concerned with changing perception than with changing the reality of our students’ academic lives, as evidenced by their siphoning $20 million away from neighborhood schools and toward SUPES’ “perception training.” Up to that point, principals were sitting relatively passively, but afterwards a lively debate ensued about the contradictions between CPS officials’ public statements and their actions, and the place of SUPES within those contradictions.
The Bigger Picture
There needs to be a similar public debate about the larger contradictions between CPS’s stated austerity and their continued wasteful spending on everything from absentee custodial management firms, to scandal ridden charter schools whose student academic growth is inferior to that of students in public schools, and millions spent on furniture for central office officials.
Eventually this public conversation will need to make its way up the chain of command from CPS to City Hall and into the Mayor’s office. After all, Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s $20 million no-bid SUPES contract pales in comparison to the $2 billion taxpayer dollars Rahm Emanuel and his predecessor doled out to their campaign contributors.