CPS: Corrupt Public Servants: SUPES and Byrd-Bennett

by troy laraviere (troylaraviere@gmail.com)

Screenshot 2015-04-20 15.58.01

An Invitation

In July of 2013–along with hundreds of principals across Chicago–I received an email with the subject, “Leadership Launch with Dr. Barbara Byrd-Bennett.”  The email implored principals to join Byrd-Bennett “for the comprehensive launch of the Chicago Executive Leadership Academy (CELA).” CELA was the title given to the series of professional development workshops organized by SUPES Academy under their $20+ million no-bid contract with Chicago Public Schools (CPS); a contract that is now under federal investigation. The launch was a huge event, staged at the UIC Forum. It was advertised as an “invite only” affair for which we had to reserve a ticketed seat (see mine above).

The Boiling Point

As expected, the event did not open up with any discussion of the SUPES training. Instead we got what we had come to expect at the start of every principals meeting: talk of an impending budget apocalypse that can only be solved by CPS defaulting on its obligation to provide a secure retirement for its teachers.

The meeting opened up with CPS board member and former school principal, Dr. Mahalia Hines.  I’d heard her twice before; her primary function seems to be to tell stories that convince her listeners that Rahm Emanuel actually cares about south and west side children from low-income households.  However, during the CELA launch, her comments were aimed at preparing principals for budget austerity.  During her talk, she mentioned a couple principals who had written grants and gotten external funding.  She praised these principals efforts because, in her words, “You can’t rely on the board to get funding for your schools.”  Yes. She actually said those exact words. Having succeeded in convincing many of the best principals in the room to consider looking for more secure employment in the suburbs, she then introduced Barbara Byrd-Bennett who continued the austerity theme with empty corporate speak about principals “leveraging partnerships” to get free or low-cost services for our students.

“Did she really just say that?” I thought.

Did she just tell us that we need to make up for lost funding by “leveraging partnerships?” I imagined Ms. Byrd-Bennett could have used her relationship or leverage with SUPES to get free or low-cost services for CPS, but she did not.  In fact, she used 20 million tax-payer dollars taken directly from school budgets to pay SUPES significantly more than their training was worth.

I could not endure the insulting lies and misinformation any longer without responding. It was blatant in-your-face hypocrisy such as this–and its disregard for our children’s learning–that moved me to publicly criticize CPS’s misinformation during a speech at City Hall 10 days after Byrd-Bennett’s performance at the UIC Forum.

Eventually, the meeting turned to SUPES.  Byrd-Bennett spent a lot of time praising the program and ended her comments on an foreboding note.  She said that if we didn’t like the training we should give them feedback on how to make it better rather than criticizing the program.  The comment made me wonder if CPS was spending $20 million on a  well-developed mature program or was SUPES field testing a series of embryonic inductions in need of significant modifications? Were they serving us, or were we serving them?  I would soon find out.

My Time in SUPES “Training”

When I arrived at my first training session, I picked up the SUPES materials and sat next to a principal who had participated in previous SUPES workshops.  I asked her what she thought of it.  “A waste of time” was her answer. The workshop was a continuation of CPS’s  “Do more with less” theme.  The session was filled with CPS talking points about its new “Student Based Budgeting” (SBB) scheme; talking points we’d already heard in a dozen previous meetings.  Principals’ chief complaints about SBB was that it slashed their budgets, forced them to increase class size to save money, and pushed them to hire cheaper inexperienced teachers.  It was as if our work for children was being deliberately undermined.  In fact SBB would be better described as Sabotage Based Budgeting.

Yet there we were once again being insulted by SUPES “master teachers” with CPS budget spin regarding the additional “autonomy” and “freedom” the new system would give us.  Later that afternoon we all had to tell our “leadership story.”  When each of us was done, every person in the room had to say something complimentary about each story they heard.  This was the principal “training” for which Rahm Emanuel’s appointed board of education and CEO spent twenty million taxpayer dollars.

A month later I attended my second SUPES course.  It actually went well.  I had great conversations with fellow principals and learned a lot from them.  Then, at the end of the session, the facilitator announced, “I know I went off script and just let you guys talk, but I felt that was what you needed today.”  My disgust returned as I realized the reason the session went so well was because the facilitator ditched the SUPES curriculum and just let principals talk and learn from one another.  Did CPS have to pay SUPES $20 million to put principals in a room and let us talk to each other?

The next week Barbara Byrd-Bennett got wind of the fact that principals were getting vocal about their poor assessment of SUPES training.  She sent an email giving principals the option to opt-out of the training but stated they needed to opt out with a form they had to send directly to her. Principals I talked to saw it as a threat; “I dare you to send me an opt out letter,” was how most of us read it.  I decided to send mine in, but was talked into staying by a CPS official who said she would move me from the “New Principals” group to the “Rising and Achieving” group (you can’t make this stuff up).

I must add at this point that I am not against investing in principal training. My time as an assistant principal under Mr. Rito Martinez and Ms. Alice Henry was the best training I could imagine. During my first year as principal CPS assigned me a coach: retired CPS principal, Ms. Joyce Nakamura.  She would meet with me weekly to give me feedback on my plans and processes for the school.  Her feedback was extremely helpful in that it always led to practical steps I could take to get school stakeholders involved in school improvement planning and decision making. Her coaching was made even more relevant by the fact that it was provided in the context of my day-to-day work. SUPES training was the opposite of this: prepackaged, underdeveloped, and often irrelevant to the most pressing issues faced by school leaders.

The “master teacher” for my third SUPES session was Mr. Dallas Dancer.  It is interesting to note that shortly after that session, Mr. Dancer resigned from SUPES as a result of a mounting controversy regarding his getting paid for his work with SUPES while holding a full time position as Superintendent of Baltimore City Schools.

Mr. Dancer’s session was focused on “Marketing Your School.” He said that perception was even more important than reality; that principals needed to focus on shaping public perception of their schools. Again, the contradictions were enraging. I told the class that when I became a principal we focused on improving our school and enhancing student learning.  Without that, there’s nothing to market. I told Mr. Dancer–with all due respect–that CPS officials seemed to be more concerned with changing perception than with changing the reality of our students’ academic lives, as evidenced by their siphoning $20 million away from neighborhood schools and toward SUPES’ “perception training.” Up to that point, principals were sitting relatively passively, but afterwards a lively debate ensued about the contradictions between CPS officials’ public statements and their actions, and the place of SUPES within those contradictions.

The Bigger Picture

There needs to be a similar public debate about the larger contradictions between CPS’s stated austerity and their continued wasteful spending on everything from absentee custodial management firms, to scandal ridden charter schools whose student academic growth is inferior to that of students in public schools, and millions spent on furniture for central office officials.

Eventually this public conversation will need to make its way up the chain of command from CPS to City Hall and into the Mayor’s office.  After all, Barbara Byrd-Bennett’s $20 million no-bid SUPES contract pales in comparison to the $2 billion taxpayer dollars Rahm Emanuel and his predecessor doled out to their campaign contributors.

14 thoughts on “CPS: Corrupt Public Servants: SUPES and Byrd-Bennett

  1. Robbing the schools to enrich themselves and their wealthy supporters and targeting those who would point out the obvious – CPS Board of Ed must go. Springfield must help.

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  2. I attended a week-long SUPES training in July 2013. The SUPES person leading my “Rising & Achieving” session was a principal from wealthy DuPage County who didn’t have a basic understanding of CPS and offered very weak suggestions for school improvement. The coach they assigned me was an educator for perhaps only a total of 5 years and had less of an idea about how to help/support than the first one. To boot, I was forced to attend that week under threat of discipline, even though my school had already paid for an educational conference that occurred at the same time. I felt the subsequent Saturday sessions were demeaning, especially since I spent most Saturdays at my own school doing necessary work to improve my school. Complaints to the Network Chief fell on deaf ears and offering suggestions to improve were not taken into consideration. It truly was, as Troy pointed out, a colossal waste of time.

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  3. This is what every new principal deserves in order to grow and be successful:

    “During my first year as principal CPS assigned me a coach: retired CPS principal, Ms. Joyce Nakamura. She would meet with me weekly to give me feedback on my plans and processes for the school. Her feedback was extremely helpful in that it always led to practical steps I could take to get school stakeholders involved in school improvement planning and decision making. Her coaching was made even more relevant by the fact that it was provided in the context of my day-to-day work.”

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  4. I would like to know the ratio of principals that attended that were for Charter schools versus public school and how many have a background/degree in education.

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  5. The CELA by SUPES Saturday sessions were extremely basic leadership essentials that anyone with a Type 75 General Administrative Certificate/License would have received in their first class or two-hardly the kind of PD needed to support experienced administrators. The real affront was the “coaching” and “mentoring” component. When discussing problems of practice with these “master teachers” many of their suggestions were not feasible because they were not aligned with CPS policies or the collective bargaining agreements that govern our interactions with our faculty and staff. We spent most of our time explaining how CPS operates to these outsiders who were being paid big money to “support” us! Many colleagues did not opt out fearing retribution from their Network Chiefs. I sat next to a woman at one session that received an email from her Chief asking why she wasn’t at CELA. She had to hurry to be checked in on the facilitator’s i-pad to get off the naughty list with her Chief. That electronic attendance was quickly being reported to our supervisors for follow-up. The only reason they received any “favorable” feedback from Principals was likely due to people’s fears that the electronic surveys could be tied to their email addresses and people feared retaliation.

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  6. Thanks for adding to this record. When I read that stuff about “don’t rely on the Board…” I thought of all the years and years I’ve covered Board meetings which were basically a great giveaway of dollars to private entities and charter schools. It’s like somebody slowly garroting you and saying “don’t rely on God to provide you with air…” I think we may be reaching a turning point. Last Wednesday’s Board meeting agenda was the shortest in history because they were afraid to put out one of those 300-page agendas with 50 or more “purchasing” contracts. But next month, if the heat is off, they will be back to business as usual. Charter school giveaways will be the primary ugliness (hiding behind the smokescreen about the Illinois Charter School Commission, which, you may have noticed, is staffed with former CPS hacks). But they will also be sneaking more “alternative” thingies into that “Department” that is no longer a “Network” so that they can privatize the alternative stuff to for-profit outfits without any fine print details. That’s what you get when the “Network Chief” is an Ivy League lawyer without ever having taught or principalled a day in Chicago. I’m glad that the Substance exposes of this corruption is growing more widespread, but this is like an archeological excavation that’s going to take a lot of hands and strong backs with a lot of picks and shoves. Please send stuff about these scams to us at Substance (Csubstance@aol.com) and we can print the information based on a reliable source (for those who don’t want yet to be fully public).

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  7. If by “professional development” they mean “sitting in a room where the presenter tells us they need to keep us all there until 1:00 and lets us do work” then consider me professionally developed!

    My favorite part is where we were technically allowed to opt out. My chief told a room of principals that we were welcome to opt out but that anyone who did would be held to the highest standard and would used by the network for every example, demonstration, presentation, visit, etc. because we obviously were distinguished and thus needed to examples to others. No thank you- losing a Saturday every other month was way more appealing than that time suck.

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  8. Thanks for the vote of confidence, Principal LaRaviere. As a leadership coach, I have had the honor of working with several CPS principals  who have worked tirelessly to improve their schools.  I was one of several retired CPS principals who received excellent training from the (NTC) New Teacher Center (School Leadership’s Development Team )(www.newteachercenter.org) in 2011. Working in this capacity ended when principals were required to attend SUPES professional development sessions in 2013.   This year I was asked if I would like to work for SUPES.  It is my understanding that this was a response to complaints voiced by principals last year that coaches, unfamliar with CPS, could not address their concerns sufficiently. I do not know how many former NTC trained coaches were invited back .
    Instead of the 50 hours of direct face to face meetings (NTC), I was only required (SUPES) to have two face to face meetings during the school year and communicate with the principal every two weeks by email or phone. In order to build a relationship with my principals, I chose to visit my assigned principals every two weeks the first semester to become familiar with the school and the principals’ concerns.  Each school has its unique challenges and successes and retired CPS principals can be a valuable resource for new CPS principals. This is not a new concept. I  benefited from the mentoring my CPS retired principal gave me when I was a first year principal.
    Joyce Nakamura

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