Chicago Public Schools

CPS Board Rejects Move to Fire Teachers for Encouraging Students' Environmental Activism

George Washington High School teachers Lauren Bianchi and Chuck Stark should instead receive warnings and must agree to training related to districts rules, the board ruled unanimously Wednesday

Chicago Public Schools’ governing board rejected a recommendation from the district to fire two educators who encouraged students to protest the General Iron car-shredding operation’s planned relocation to their Southeast Side community.

George Washington High School teachers Lauren Bianchi and Chuck Stark should instead receive warnings and must agree to training related to districts rules, the board ruled unanimously Wednesday.

Both teachers were vocal opponents of General Iron relocating from Lincoln Park to East 116th Street along the Calumet River, a site a little more than a half-mile from the school where they taught. Students from the school took part in a number of demonstrations.

In addition to multiple marches and demonstrations, Stark took part in a hunger strike and Bianchi was arrested at a protest outside a city official’s home.

Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s administration ultimately denied a permit for the business to operate in February. Last week, federal officials who investigated the matter over the past two years accused the city of practicing racially discriminatory zoning and land-use policies.

Chicago Public Schools recommended firing the two for alleged “repeated instances of poor judgment and bias in their instructional roles and in their faculty adviser roles.” A more than 400-page report outlined the allegations, though that document wasn’t made public.

Chicago Teachers Union officials say Bianchi and Stark were targeted by Lightfoot for embarrassing her.

“Let me be clear — this is retaliation,” CTU President Stacy Davis Gates said at a rally in support of the two teachers Wednesday. “This is retaliation because we have two educators who stood in lockstep with their students, their families and their communities to challenge the racism.”

In a statement Wednesday, Lightfoot said “the board considered a matter today involving allegations of serious rules violations and rendered a decision. This matter is now closed.”

Several representatives of the Southeast Side school and the community spoke during the board meeting in favor of retaining the two teachers. Both have taught at George Washington for four years.

Donald Davis, a veteran teacher at George Washington, told the board that Bianchi and Stark are “star teachers” at the school and said he believes they were “being unfairly targeted.”

Marcelina Pedraza, a community member and parent, told the board that Stark and Bianchi are “amazing teachers and our community is lucky to have them.”

One former student credited the teachers with helping her attend Northwestern University as a freshman this fall on a full-ride scholarship.

“They’ve been some of the best teachers I ever had,” said Trinity Colon, who recently graduated from George Washington and has participated in protests against the metal shredder. “If the board truly cares about Black and Brown youth, they will not fire teachers who have done nothing more than love and protect” students.

Both Bianchi and Stark were told Tuesday that CPS was recommending their dismissal. Both have described their work with students as “culturally relevant education” that is supported by the school district.

“I’m overwhelmed with joy,” Bianchi said after the board vote. “This has been a scary 24 hours.”

“All the evidence showed we did not do anything wrong,” Stark said, adding that he looks forward to returning to George Washington for the start of the new school year next month.

In closing remarks, Chicago Board of Education President Miguel del Valle said, “This board believes in culturally relevant education and it is a core value of CPS.”

“We will continue to be supportive of all our teachers who promote education that is relevant and sensitive to the environments of our students and the overall status of their communities. So in no way do we want to move away from that commitment,” del Valle added.

CPS officials said in a statement after the vote that they hope the warnings “will not only address the behavior of these teachers but ensure that promoting civic engagement among school communities is done appropriately and with due regard for student safety.”

Copyright CHIST - SunTimes
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