Chicago Hope

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Not surprisingly, Vander Weele's reputation as a crusader has at times gotten her into trouble with some Pershing Road veterans.

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."

Vallas and his team have received almost universal praise for their accomplishments so far.

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.

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.

Vol. 16, Issue 08

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