School & District Management

Chicago Hope

By David Hill — October 23, 1996 22 min read
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Power walking down a deserted corridor at the Chicago public schools’ massive headquarters, Maribeth Vander Weele suddenly notices a fresh tag on the wall, courtesy of the Latin Kings, one of the city’s more notorious gangs. “That’s new,” she says, not breaking stride for even a nanosecond. “I’ll have to get someone to paint over it.” She’d probably do it herself--if she only had the time. And for Maribeth Vander Weele, time is of the essence. Since being named the district’s chief of investigations one year ago, she has devoted practically all her waking hours to ridding the Chicago schools of corruption, fraud, and abuse. “This is a mission,” says the former Chicago Sun-Times investigative reporter, who made a name for herself by exposing wrongdoing in the school system once dubbed “a terrible human tragedy” by former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.

A petite woman with a sunny personality that belies the toughness within, Vander Weele, 36, spent five years at the Sun-Times, the scrappier of Chicago’s two daily newspapers. She was like a one-woman Woodward and Bernstein, documenting a culture of corruption that had long been taken for granted by the bureaucrats at “Pershing Road,” Chicagospeak for the school district’s factory-like central office. (Sample headline: “Widespread Waste, Foul-Ups Uncovered at School Board.”) “She was a tough, indefatigable reporter, primarily in the areas of corruption and waste,” says Linda Lenz, the editor of Catalyst, a monthly newsletter that chronicles school reform in Chicago. Vander Weele, Lenz adds, was the first reporter at either daily to take an investigative approach to covering the school system. “That kind of reporting had never been done before.”

Vander Weele saw herself as carrying on the tradition of people like Upton Sinclair, whose 1906 novel, The Jungle, about Chicago’s meatpacking industry, shocked Congress into passing the nation’s first pure food and drug act. She wasn’t just a reporter; she was a crusader. And yet, sometimes Vander Weele wondered if her stories were really making a difference. “I would write these bombshell investigative stories, and there’d be no reaction,” she says. “No reaction from City Hall. No reaction from anybody. I just assumed they were going into this hole somewhere. It was very frustrating. I’d look at my colleagues, and I’d think, ‘If it were another issue, there would be this outrage.’”

Vander Weele’s desire to change things for the better even influenced her dream world. “I would actually have nightmares of trying to--this sounds so weird and silly--of trying to protect children from gunfire,” she says, “or going into a mansion and finding this hidden room with all these forgotten children and helping them through these passages.”

Many newspaper reporters eventually come to the realization that their stories have about as much shelf life as the cheap paper they are printed on. Vander Weele felt that if she could only put everything she knew about the Chicago school system into a book, then her work might have some lasting influence. So, in 1993, she spent most of her evenings, weekends, and vacations researching and writing Reclaiming Our Schools: The Struggle for Chicago School Reform. The book, published by Loyola University Press, documented the sorry state of Chicago’s schools and the efforts of reformers to do something about it, largely through the establishment of local school councils made up of principals, teachers, parents, and community members. “I had hoped the book would create a public outcry,” Vander Weele says, “because that had been missing for so many years.” Reclaiming Our Schools did garner positive reviews, but the response from the public was muted. “In fact, I only sold a few thousand copies of the book, to be honest with you,” she says.

The outcry came from downstate in Springfield, where in 1995 the Republican-controlled Illinois legislature--fed up with the district’s chronic failures--handed Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley emergency powers to run the city’s schools for four years. Daley, in turn, named his budget director, Paul Vallas, as the chief executive officer (the old term, superintendent, was dropped), and his chief of staff, Gery Chico, as the president of a new five-member reform school board. With much fanfare, Daley promised a new beginning for the nation’s third-largest school system. “Business as usual is over,” he declared. “The special interests will have to move to the back of the line. The bureaucrats who stand in the way of change will be removed and their powers dissolved.”

Vallas, it turns out, had met Vander Weele when he was still Daley’s budget director. His father-in-law, who had read Reclaiming Our Schools, dragged Vallas to a lecture the reporter was giving in a Chicago suburb. Afterward, over coffee, Vallas--who had no idea that he was about to be put in charge of the school system--told Vander Weele, “You should consider going to work for the board of education.” She replied, “I don’t think they’re serious about reform.”

One month later, when Vallas got the top job, Vander Weele was among the first people he called about coming to work for him. He wanted her to join his management team as the director of school and community relations.

Naturally, Vander Weele had some doubts. “My key question,” she says, “was, ‘Is Paul Vallas serious?’ Because I had been a critic of the system for many years, and I wanted to make sure this wasn’t somebody trying to buy me off and silence my criticism.” Convinced that Vallas’ intentions were honorable, Vander Weele took the job. She said goodbye to her colleagues at the Sun-Times, packed up 42 boxes of documents, and moved to her new office at 1819 W. Pershing Road--the very place where, as she herself once put it, “tales of lavish spending, cronyism, and bureaucratic snafus were legendary.”

“I was heartbroken,” says veteran investigative reporter Charles Nicodemus, Vander Weele’s mentor at the Sun-Times. “No paper can afford to lose talent, but no paper can ever afford to lose someone of Maribeth’s talent. It was tragic that she got away.”

At Pershing Road, it soon became clear that Vander Weele’s investigative talents were being squandered in the community-relations job. “I’m not a schmoozer,” she says. “I’m not one who enjoys ceremonies or awards or those kinds of things. My interest has always been in the biggest problems in the system and getting them solved.” To that end, Vallas in August 1995 named Vander Weele chief of investigations. Vallas wanted to clean house, and he wanted Vander Weele to lead the charge. “For too long,” Vallas said at the time, “things have fallen through the cracks. We want to send a signal that all allegations of wrongdoing will be vigorously pursued and resolved.”

In Chicago, such talk from the head of the school district was downright radical. As Vander Weele wrote in her book, the system, for “as long as anyone can remember, served primarily as a hiring hall for patronage workers and a fountain of lucrative contracts and then, almost as an afterthought, as a place to educate children.” Corruption, it seemed, could be found at nearly every level of the 413,000-student district. A few years back, school board president D. Sharon Grant was investigated after allegations that she had steered contracts and arranged for extensive renovations of a board-owned property leased to her mother. She was later convicted of cheating on her taxes and sentenced to 21 months in prison. More recently, the district’s director of school facilities, James Harney, was indicted on federal charges that he had accepted $200,000 in cash, a new Lincoln Continental, and jobs for three of his children in exchange for steering more than $20 million in school repair work to four Chicago firms. He, too, is now in prison.

When Vallas and his team took control, one of the first things they discovered was a warehouse filled with thousands of pieces of brand-new school furniture, including desks, chairs, even some pianos. An incredulous Ben Reyes, the district’s chief operating officer, told a reporter, “We asked why, and the workers told us they were waiting for orders from someone to deliver it somewhere.” Reyes complied, demanding that the furniture be distributed to schools immediately.

When word got out that the new regime meant business, the phone in Vander Weele’s office began getting a workout. Whistle-blowers knew they finally had someone they could turn to, someone who would investigate their allegations of wrongdoing instead of turning a blind eye. Besides, they weren’t just calling a faceless bureaucrat--they were calling Maribeth Vander Weele, the celebrated newspaper reporter. To this day, some informants insist on meeting face to face with Vander Weele rather than with one of the 18 part-time Chicago police officers who make up her team of investigators. “I’ve built up this trust with people,” she says.

Every week, dozens of complaints--from teachers, students, parents, and community members--pour into Vander Weele’s office. Some examples: A teacher is accused of slapping a 14-year-old student. A school engineer (translation: head custodian) is accused of sexual misconduct against another employee. A teacher is suspected of stealing musical instruments (a sousaphone and a glockenspiel). A principal is accused of holding meetings of the local school council without informing all its members. A clerk is suspected of taking $1,000 from a school’s internal accounts. A school council member is accused of disrupting the educational environment of a school by staying in the building all day, roaming the halls, going in and out of classrooms uninvited, and making sexually suggestive comments to teachers and students. And so on.

Because of the high volume of complaints, Vander Weele’s office refers many back to principals, who are instructed to conduct their own investigations. Other allegations are investigated but found to lack credibility. Still, Vander Weele and her team of investigators have uncovered some shocking examples of wrongdoing in the schools.

Last December, Vander Weele’s office was tipped off to a bribery scheme in which an elementary school principal had tried to buy his job for $3,400 from the local school council. The informant--a council member--wore a secret microphone for two weeks to catch the principal in the act of making his offer. “For decades,” Vander Weele said at the time, “there have been allegations of principals purchasing their jobs, dating to the days of Al Capone. This is the first time we’ve caught somebody.” The principal was fired, and the school’s assistant principal, also implicated in the scheme, is on a leave of absence.

One month later, the district took disciplinary action against dozens of employees--principals, teachers, custodians, and other staff members--investigated by Vander Weele’s office. Some were fired, including a gym teacher who attacked a student with a hockey stick, a security guard who was convicted of stealing three television sets from a school to buy crack cocaine, a substitute teacher who had been convicted in Minnesota of possessing more than five kilograms of heroin, and a custodian who was captured on videotape taking money from a teacher’s desk.

In May, Vander Weele’s office learned that an elementary school principal and curriculum coordinator had given teachers copies of the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills so they could prepare their students for the examination, a clear violation of district policy. After investigators looked into the matter, district lawyers recommended that the principal be suspended for up to 30 days and that the curriculum coordinator be dismissed. (Both cases are pending.)

No wonder The Washington Monthly, in an article about how to fix the nation’s schools, gushed, “Every district needs a Maribeth Vander Weele.” Surprisingly, there aren’t many out there. Vander Weele, in fact, knows of only one other high-profile investigator: Edward Stancik, who since 1990 has been the New York City school system’s special commissioner of investigation, a post that, unlike Vander Weele’s, is independent from the district’s education bureaucracy. “He’s much more of an external critic,” she says of her New York counterpart. “My advantage is that I’m sitting down with Paul every day and seeing these things actually taken care of. I can make recommendations, and, in some cases, I can actually implement programs.”

Indeed, Vander Weele has become one of Vallas’ top advisers. She meets with him often, making suggestions on how to improve the school system. Many of the proposals she outlines in her book--for example, eliminating the district’s longtime practice of “social promotion,” which allowed students to move up to the next grade level regardless of whether they had learned anything--have now been put in place. “I’m a watchdog on the system,” she says, “but I’m also kind of an agent of change.”

Vallas, who calls Vander Weele “incorruptible,” says, “She has had a very strong influence in the development of our educational policies.” After years of wondering whether anyone was actually reading her newspaper articles, the one-time muckraker is finally seeing some results.

Sitting behind the desk in her dingy third-floor office, with its mismatched file cabinets and ancient air conditioner, Vander Weele sips from a can of Diet Pepsi and says, “Actually being able to carry things through to completion, and being able to get rid of the thieving janitor, the abusive teacher, or whatever, has been extremely satisfying. I mean, I can’t explain what it means to make a difference every day. Obviously, it’s never enough. You always want to make more of a difference.

“Whenever I hire someone, I say, ‘Don’t come here if you’re here just to do a job because we are at a key point in history. We are making history. We have this golden opportunity to turn around one of the worst systems in America and make a difference for children. And we can’t lose that opportunity. We can’t pass that up even for a minute.’”

As a former reporter, Vander Weele’s colleagues sometimes ask her to help deal with press inquiries. On a recent summer day, Chief Operating Officer Ben Reyes summons her to his office to help respond to a local television reporter who claims to have found high levels of lead paint on the playground equipment at an elementary school. Reyes, accompanied by several members of his staff, calls up the reporter, puts him on speakerphone, and lets Vander Weele do most of the talking.

“We are spending $40 million this summer on lead and asbestos abatement in the classrooms,” she tells the reporter, “because that’s where the kids spend most of their time.”

Fine, the reporter says, but what about the playground equipment? “The problem I see is that nobody ever paid attention to this stuff.”

“Nobody ever paid attention to any of this stuff,” she replies, making it clear that this is a problem inherited, not created, by the Vallas regime. The reporter presses on. “I think you guys are going to have to reassure parents that you’re going to do something about this problem,” he says. “I think they’re going to be very upset.”

“It isn’t like we’re not doing something,” Vander Weele says. “And let’s talk to the state legislature about getting more funds to fix these problems.” Besides, she adds, old playground equipment is slowly being replaced. “But it takes time,” she admits.

The reporter, mildly placated, hangs up, after which Reyes says, “He brings up a legitimate issue.” Reyes agrees that all playground equipment needs to be tested. But first, he plans to send out a memo to all school principals alerting them to the potential problem.

Later, asked if she ever feels awkward fielding media calls, Vander Weele--who knows what it’s like to be stonewalled by a school official--replies, “No, because I’m telling the truth. And I know what reporters are looking for. If it gets to the point where I’m fudging things, that’s when it would feel funny.” She admits that it has been “a real eye-opener” to see how reporters latch on to one issue. “Any one of these cases on any day at any moment can blow up in the media,” she says. “And what surprised me is that sometimes the least serious cases end up on the television news.”

On the other hand, becoming an insider has simply confirmed what Vander Weele suspected all along about the Chicago school system. “I was right about the corruption,” she says. “In fact, I found out that it was far worse than I ever imagined.”

One might expect someone in Vander Weele’s position to be about as cynical as they come, yet she is surprisingly free of that particular characteristic. “She has a charitable nature,” says Charles Nicodemus of the Sun-Times. “She would like to believe that people are basically good, unlike some of us investigative reporters who think the worst of everybody.”

“She has so much personal integrity and no ax to grind,” says Jackie Gallagher, the spokeswoman for the Chicago Teachers Union. “I’ve been a fan of hers for a long time.”

“She’s a very spiritual person,” adds Barbara Sizemore, the dean of the school of education at DePaul University in Chicago and a friend of Vander Weele’s.

In fact, Vander Weele is a born-again Christian who believes strongly in living by example, both in her professional life and her personal life. On the job, she seems motivated by the belief that every convicted miscreant is one more moral victory in her war against corruption. In her few moments of free time, when she isn’t sailing on Lake Michigan with her longtime boyfriend, she’s a mentor to a 17-year-old motherless girl from a tough, gang-dominated neighborhood.

“My bottom line is my faith,” she says, “and the belief that when I die it’s not going to matter how much money I made, it’s not going to matter how successful my career was, but did I make a difference? Did I influence other people’s lives? Of course, I don’t always live up to my own standards, and I don’t pretend to. But, nevertheless, that’s the goal.”

If Vander Weele is motivated by her religious beliefs, she is also driven by a desire to see the children of Chicago experience the same kind of educational opportunities she had growing up in Palos Heights, an upper-middle-class suburb southwest of the city. The daughter of a dentist and a homemaker, Vander Weele, the second-youngest of seven children, attended Chicago Christian High where, she says, she got a “very basic education, nothing fancy.”

“I learned my spelling, my grammar, my punctuation, history, social studies, and such,” she says. “I feel very strongly that these kids [in Chicago] deserve the same education that I had. I didn’t get any of this premier, elitist education, but I did get a basic education. And when I saw that they weren’t getting anything near what I had, it outraged me. I always say to my staff, ‘What would you have for your own child? Would you be satisfied if this is how your child were treated?’ And if the answer is no, then it’s not acceptable.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, Vander Weele’s reputation as a crusader has at times gotten her into trouble with some Pershing Road veterans. “She’s bold,” says Barbara Sizemore. “She goes where angels fear to tread, and that makes some educators nervous.” Even Paul Vallas admits that Vander Weele can be a “zealot” at times. “She’s quick to judge,” he says. “But she also has the capacity to admit she’s made a mistake.”

“I’ve been known to go to Paul about things I felt were wrong with upper management,” Vander Weele admits, “which does not make me the most popular person in this building.” She has tried to soften her aggressive style but adds, “My loyalty is to Paul and the kids, and I’m willing to risk being unpopular within the organization for that. But at the same time, I want to be more careful about getting the full picture of things. People know that’s my role. I’m not here to win a popularity contest.” Vallas, she says, has told her, “If you don’t want to be hated, you shouldn’t have come over here.”

She is also aware that some central-office employees probably resent the fact that a former newspaper reporter--and not just any reporter, but one who wrote countless stories about “bureaucratic bungling” at Pershing Road--is now involved in setting policy for the district. But she doesn’t pretend to be something she isn’t. “I’m not an educator,” she says. “My strength lies in culling ideas from the field and making them see reality.”

Her defenders point out that her book, which concludes with a list of proposals for improving the schools, gave her the credibility she needed to become a policymaker. “She didn’t come from the education field,” says Gallagher of the teachers’ union, “but she’s probably better informed than some people with doctorates.” Catalyst Editor Linda Lenz points out, “School systems, and probably a lot of other organizations, could benefit from having journalists in their midst because journalists tend not--or at least try not--to be part of groupthink. They’re able to say, ‘The emperor has no clothes.’ It might be helpful to have someone there who doesn’t have a lot of educational baggage.”

Lenz, however, raises another issue: Can Vander Weele, as an insider, be effective policing the entire system, from top to bottom? “Part of me wishes she were still on the outside,” Lenz says. “She’s not in a position to step back and see how the higher-ups are doing. I think it’s important for a school system to have its own investigator, but it’s important to have someone on the outside, as well. Because no matter how much you care about impartiality, it’s hard to believe that you won’t run up against some roadblocks.”

Leo Gorenstein, who just stepped down as the editor of Substance, an anti-establishment newspaper published by a group of Chicago teachers, has nothing but praise for Vander Weele. “I really think highly of her,” he says. “But I don’t think she’s ever going to be truly effective working on the inside. I don’t think she’ll be able to get into the areas that really need to be investigated. She should be independent. But Paul Vallas hired her, and she’s loyal to him.” Gorenstein, no fan of the Vallas regime, suspects that if Vander Weele were still at the Sun-Times, she would cast a more critical eye on the district.

Another critic of the new administration is Julie Woestehoff, the executive director of Parents United for Responsible Education, a local advocacy group with close ties to the local school councils. “The new people who have come in are just a branch of City Hall,” she says, “and they operate the way City Hall has always operated. It’s clout; it’s who you know. Paul Vallas doesn’t know anything about education. I’m happy things are changing, but I believe very strongly in local management of schools, and he’s trying to undermine that.”

On the other hand, Woestehoff, like Gorenstein, has high regard for Vander Weele. “She has an enormous amount of integrity,” she says, “and I know she cares a great deal about the kids. She’s a very clean person in a dirty system, and it’s still a dirty system, despite what some people say.”

Vander Weele is flattered by the compliments, but she is quick to defend her boss. Paul Vallas, she says, is a “very ethical person” who has surrounded himself with top-notch people. “Paul is dead serious,” she says, “not only about improving education but also about cleaning up corruption in the system, which is not an easy thing to do because this has been a very politicized system for many years. The groups that have been exploiting the system are legendary and very powerful and very vocal. Paul has taken a lot of heat for doing what he’s done, and I’ve been standing right there along with him.”

Actually, Vallas and his team have received almost universal praise for their accomplishments so far. The Chicago Tribune, in a June editorial, noted “a heady sense that improving Chicago’s schools is not only a possibility but also a priority.” During the Vallas regime’s first year, the paper added, “action replaced bureaucratic doublespeak, accountability became a reality instead of a buzzword, results began replacing process as a measure of success, and common sense became ... common.” Even the Chicago Teachers Union, once considered among the most militant in the nation, has largely supported the new administration. “They’re really in it to improve the schools,” Gallagher says.

“They get high marks from the public just for candor and energy and their attempts to solve problems,” says Nicodemus. “Whether they will actually solve all the problems remains to be seen.”

“What we did,” Vander Weele says, “was bring hope to the Chicago public schools.” With hope, of course, come expectations, which are now higher than they’ve been for a long time. Vander Weele admits there’s much yet to be done before Vallas gives up his emergency powers. “We have three years left,” she says, “so I have to accomplish as much as I can while I’m here.”

Lately, Vander Weele has been focusing her energy on the district’s staggering truancy problems. She cites some alarming statistics: On average, a Chicago high school student is absent about two months during the school year. And on any given day, at least 40,000 students are missing in action. “Many parents simply do not know that their child has not been going to school,” she says.

Vander Weele recently helped write a plan to combat the problem. Under the new policy, which her office will oversee, a computerized attendance system--now used in Chicago high schools and half the elementary schools--will be expandedto all schools. The system features an automated calling system, which notifies parents if their children are absent. The district is also exploring the possibility of collaborating with city and state agencies so that welfare payments could be reduced for parents of chronically truant students. Also, the district recently hired 200 parents--four for each high school--to work 20 hours a week tracking down absent students. “This is the first time we’ve taken a systemic approach to truancy,” Vander Weele says.

At the moment, however, Vander Weele is concerned about more mundane matters. She’s on her way to have lunch with some anti-gang activists, but the elevator isn’t cooperating; it refuses to stop on the third floor, leaving an impatient Vander Weele fuming. “This is driving me nuts!” she says. Taking advantage of the delay, she pulls out her cellular phone and calls her boyfriend to apprise him of her estimated time of departure. “Oh, I don’t know,” she says, “probably about 7. I’ve got a lot going. But we’ll go to a movie. I’ll come home at 7:15, and we’ll go to a movie at 7:30.” Pause. “All right, I’ll come home by 7:10.” Another pause. “All right, 7 o’clock it is. See you, sweetie.” The negotiation completed, Vander Weele puts away her phone.

When you’re on a mission, it’s not easy giving up 15 minutes of precious time.

A version of this article appeared in the October 23, 1996 edition of Education Week as Chicago Hope


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