Thursday, June 23, 2005

The Helen DeBerry Story: Was Success Punished?

After only one year, Helen DeBerry was fired from her job as principal of an Illinois charter school. It certainly couldn't have been because she wasn't busy:

The principal at North Lawndale's LEARN Charter School this year shepherded in a new curriculum, hired new staff, helped move the school into a new building and, ultimately, oversaw a 41 percentage point gain in reading test scores -- from 36 percent of kids at the national average to 77 percent.

Both reading and math scores increased -- from 53 percent of students at level in math to 89 percent. These gains were made largely by the same kids.

Her reward?

She was fired by the school's board just before the scores were released, over the objections of many staff and parents.

"The staff and parents have told the board this is the wrong decision, that they're getting rid of the best thing that's happening here," said teacher Kathleen Quinn, who is leading the effort to retain the principal. "We're on the way to being the best school in city."

Helen DeBerry was principal one year, the third principal since the charter opened in 2001 with nearly all low-income kids. Previously, she was principal at another Chicago public school, Earhart, where she also helped dramatically improve test scores.

Charters are public but have boards, often stacked with businessmen, as is LEARN's, that raise funds and make key decisions about their schools. Public schools have local school councils, which hire the principals but are required to give them four-year contracts.

The board president of LEARN (Lawndale Educational and Regional Network) wouldn't comment on DeBerry, saying the board doesn't discuss personnel matters. Local school councils are required to give a reason for a firing if a principal asks.

"I feel I've done everything to get this school established, to raise the level of achievement and put in place a good instructional program," DeBerry said.

Scuttlebut around the district is that real reason behind DeBerry's dismissal was because "a small group" of staff and parents were frustrated by DeBerry's high standards and stricter rules. Others said that she had been "divisive" and had fostered a "less welcoming" environment.
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