• Lauren FitzPatrick/Sun-Times
  • Troy LaRaviere

The mystery of Blaine Elementary is how it became what every neighborhood school is supposed to be—an anchor of its neighborhood. Years ago I noticed that it had been freshly tuckpointed; no longer a weary 19th-century brick fortress, it looked alert and inviting. Then I became aware of the large number of kids with backpacks, many escorted by young parents, converging on the school each morning along the sidewalks of Greenview and Jannsen and Grace; this was the rare neighborhood school in a white, wealthy part of Chicago that actually drew from the neighborhood around it. When the schoolyard was converted from an after-hours neighborhood parking lot into a turf-covered soccer field, dads began showing up to kick the ball around with their kids and give them pointers. A local congregation holds church in the auditorium every Sunday, and you can never tell what might be going on outside: cutting through Blaine’s schoolyard last summer on my way home from breakfast on Southport Avenue, I came across a traveling miniature golf course that had set up shop there.

A school like Blaine in a neighborhood like Lakeview makes me think of the dune grass that’s sprouted near the water’s edge of our place in Michigan: it keeps the sand from drifting. Blaine keeps families in Chicago. I don’t know the story behind the school; I merely observe that the people who live around it think it belongs to them, and I propose that any public official committed to advancing public education in Chicago should want very much to know how that happened.

Troy LaRaviere, principal of Blaine for the past three years, tells me that Mayor Rahm Emanuel, who lives a mile away, has never visited Blaine. That doesn’t surprise me: Emanuel lives about two blocks from another neighborhood school, Ravenswood Elementary, and the school’s principal during the two years my wife was on its local school council (a couple of years ago both moved on) said Emanuel never showed up there either. The mayor’s desire to make the Chicago Public Schools shape up is surely genuine, but it’s possible to champion education reform without being genuinely inquisitive about education.

Last week LaRaviere published an op-ed in the Sun-Times that called out Emanuel: “Nothing I’ve seen can compare to what I’ve witnessed as a CPS principal under the administration of Mayor Rahm Emanuel. . . . While publicly praising principals in speeches and with awards, behind the scenes this administration has disregarded principals’ knowledge and experience. They have ignored and even suppressed principals’ voices in order to push City Hall’s political agenda for Chicago’s schools.”

LaRaviere quoted himself addressing a meeting of unhappy principals. “Finally, I spoke,” La Raviere wrote. “‘This administration gets away with this because we let them. We are the professionals. Yet, we allow political interests to dominate the public conversation about what’s good for the children in our schools. Every time these officials misinform the public about the impact of their policies, we need to follow them with a press conference of our own to set the record straight.'”

His audience was “paralyzed with fear,” La Raviere went on, and one principal asked, “Aren’t you afraid of losing your job?” The question awakened an old memory, of the January day in 1989 when the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy crossed Moammar Gadhafi’s “line of death” in the Gulf of Sidra and was approached by two Libyan MIG-23s. La Raviere and the rest of the Kennedy‘s crew manned their battle stations and American F-14s shot down the Libyans.

So as to that fretful question about losing his job, La Raviere declared, “This is my answer: I did not travel across an ocean and risk my life to defend American freedoms only to return and relinquish those freedoms to an elected official and his appointed board of education.” The world’s finest school systems are built on the ideas of American educators, he argued, “yet, our own elected officials have been ignoring those ideas in favor of teacher-bashing, privatized choice, fly-by-night fast-track teacher licensing and over-reliance on testing—ideas that have not improved schooling in any nation that has tried them.”

Forgive me for this: it’s possible to speak truth to power but cheat while doing it, and La Raviere’s op-ed pulled a few rhetorical fast ones. “Over-reliance on testing” and “fly-by-night” licensing are by definition bad ideas, which is not to say testing and fast-track licensing are. For that matter, to look at the Gulf of Sidra incident from Gadhafi’s point of view, the USS Kennedy was defending American freedoms inside Libya’s territorial waters. Emanuel is merely functioning in a venerable American tradition when he’s pugnacious.

I talked to LaRaviere Wednesday, and asked him about the familiar charge that dead wood piles up in the teachers’ lounges of the public schools and can’t be eliminated—thanks to the protections negotiated by the Chicago Teachers Union. This is supposedly why it’s easier to create a new school—a charter school—with a nonunion faculty than to straighten out an old one. LaRaviere isn’t buying it; he told me he got rid of four weak teachers his first year at Blaine and four more his second.

“Tenure doesn’t mean you work forever,” he said. “Tenure means you get due process rights. I would not want to work in a system in which teachers’ due process rights are not protected.” If CPS backed up principals who want to weed out their faculties, he said, more of them would be willing to engage in due process and see it through. But there’s no backing. “Our mayor,” LaRaviere told me, “is more interested in helping his wealthy allies capitalize and loot the public school coffers by privatizing education through charters and others. I don’t think he has any interest in closing the achievement gap or raising achievement in general.”

Troy LaRaviere is the most interesting new enemy of Rahm Emanuel to come along since Emanuel entered City Hall. If that makes him in the mayor’s eyes an enemy worth keeping, so be it. But leaders who are full of themselves like to think there’s no opponent alive they can’t persuade, charm, or co-opt—and if that’s the case here, Blaine, as I said, is a mile from the mayor’s house. It would make a nice photo op if he walked in with a first grader.