Chicago Hope

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As a former reporter, Vander Weele's colleagues sometimes ask her to help deal with press inquiries.

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.

Becoming an insider has confirmed what Vander Weele suspected all along about the Chicago school system.

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."

Jackie Gallagher, spokeswoman for the Chicago Teachers Union

"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."

Vol. 16, Issue 08

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