Chicago Hope

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As a former reporter, Vander Weele is sometimes asked by her colleagues to help deal with press inquiries. So today, a Monday in mid-July, chief operating officer Ben Reyes has summoned Vander Weele 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 that 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.

"I was right about the corruption. In fact, I found out that it was far worse than I ever imagined."

Maribeth Vander Weele

Later, when 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 she 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, 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, 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.

"She's bold. She goes where angels fear to tread, and that makes some educators nervous."

Barbara Sizemore
DePaul University

"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 that I felt were wrong with upper management," Vander Weele admits, "which does not make me the most popular person in this building." She has attempted 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."

"She didn't come from the education field, but she's probably better informed than some people with doctorates."

Jackie Gallagher
Chicago Teachers Union

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 Jackie 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 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 it.

Another critic of the new administration is Julie Woestehoff, 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 that 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 that 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," Jackie Gallagher says.

"They get high marks from the public just for candor and energy and their attempts to solve problems," says Charles 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 very 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."

On any given day, at least 40,000 students are missing in action.

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 sweeping plan to combat the problem. Under the new policy, which will be overseen by Vander Weele's office, a computerized attendance system--now used in Chicago high schools and half the elementary schools--will be expanded to 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 that 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.

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