Chicago Hope

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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 pour into Vander Weele's office.

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 of its members. A clerk is suspected of taking $1,000 from a school's internal accounts. A member of a local school council 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 attempted 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.)

Vallas, who calls Vander Weele "incorruptible," says, "She has had a very strong influence ...."

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 outlined 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, Vander Weele sips from a can of Diet Pepsi.

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.' "

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