Lincoln Park High School, where eight teachers were hired and then promptly unhired for the 2013-14 school year.
Lincoln Park High School, where eight teachers were hired and then promptly unhired for the 2013-14 school year. Credit: Richard A. Chapman/Chicago Sun-Times, Sun-Times Media

For the last few weeks, Mayor Emanuel has been promising parents and students at schools he’s closing that they’ll have everything from new air conditioners to new computers in the schools he’s sending them to.

Not that any parent would doubt the mayor and his education team, but if you’re one of the many parents who’s doubting the mayor and his education team, you may want to consider the case of the eight teachers at Lincoln Park High School.

They too had a promise from the Chicago Public Schools—in this case, that if they followed a designated process and met a designated standard, they would have jobs next year, even as the mayor changed their school’s curriculum.

And now, poof! They don’t have those jobs, since CPS has sent them what’s become known as letters of rescinding. It’s the latest sign that what CPS giveth today, it can taketh tomorrow. And if you don’t like it, you can go teach in Detroit.

Just so you know, Lincoln Park is a high-functioning school that’s been one of CPS’s success stories for the last few decades.

At least, it’s one of the few truly integrated high schools in town, as its International Baccalaureate (IB) program brings in kids of all races and economic backgrounds.

In addition to high test scores, it has a great music program and jazz band. Its theater program puts on wonderful plays, such as a rip-roaring rendition of Fiddler on the Roof that I saw a few years ago.

All together now: if I were rich man, Mayor Rahm would love me.

Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

A few years back their boys’ basketball team—led by Michael “Juice” Thompson, who went on to star at Northwestern—gave powerhouses Simeon and Young a run for their money.

And the girls’ soccer team is a perennial contender for the city championship despite the fact that they played on a mangled field that looks like it’s been a staging area for tanks.

Yet the Park District built a soccer field for the private Latin School in nearby Lincoln Park. Oh, don’t get me started.

In short, of all the problems Mayor Emanuel had to fix when he took office, Lincoln Park High was not at the top of the list, if it was on the list at all. Which, unfortunately, didn’t stop our mayor from trying to fix it.

On December 12, the mayor announced he was turning Lincoln Park—along with Taft High School—into a “wall-to-wall” IB school. He’d already brought the program to Senn, Clemente, Hyde Park, and Back of the Yards high schools.

It sounds great, except that I’m not quite sure what it means, and I don’t think the mayor does either.

The existing IB program is a rigorous course of study best suited for the highest-functioning overachievers—the kind of kids willing to stay up all night, if that’s what it takes, to plow through the mountain of homework the program assigns them.

There’s nothing wrong with that, so save your letters, IB lovers. I’m just saying that the program is most definitely not for everyone.

The “wall-to-wall” IB program, on the other hand, is designed for everyone. When you strip away the rhetoric, that means there’s almost no difference between Lincoln Park with wall-to-wall IB and Lincoln Park now.

It’s like the mayor painted the school walls a new color and called it educational progress.

There is, of course, the magic of the IB name. Apparently, the mayor is convinced that adding the IB brand name to Lincoln Park High will convince more middle-class north-side parents to send their kids there, even though many of them were already sending their kids there.

I’m not arguing that it makes any sense.

As with his longer-day initiative, Mayor Emanuel imposed the wall-to-wall program without consulting the people most affected by it. He certainly didn’t run it by Lincoln Park’s students or teaching staff. Instead, it was one of his classic top-down ultimatums, jazzed up with a press conference where he declared: “We will have more choice, high-quality choices for our families. They will not have to go to the suburbs.”

In the last few months, officials from the Chicago Teachers Union have met with CPS to try to limit the fallout, on the grounds that it’s OK if our PR-hungry mayor wants to give Lincoln Park’s walls a new coat of paint, metaphorically speaking, as long as good teachers didn’t get fired.

The two sides eventually worked out a deal in which teachers with excellent or superior ratings would automatically keep their jobs, while satisfactory-ranked or nontenured teachers—those with less than three years on the job—would have to reapply.

One teacher who had to reapply was Deborah Ditkowsky, a chemistry teacher with more than 20 years in the system. Ditkowsky says that for almost all her career, she’d been rated excellent or superior. But last year, Lincoln Park principal Michael Boraz lowered her to satisfactory, in part, she says, because they had a few disagreements on school policy. “I can be blunt,” she says. “I’m not what you would call a wimp.”

When she heard she’d have to reapply for her job, Ditkowsky says she went to Boraz’s office and asked if she should bother. Boraz convinced her to give it the old college try. So in February, she sat down for an interview with Boraz and Leslie Boozer, a CPS central office official.

“Among the questions the principal asked me is ‘Have you ever been given criticism by a superior?'” says Ditkowsky. “And I said, ‘The only superior who ever criticized me was you.'”

Ouch! But to his credit, Boraz was apparently willing to let bygones be bygones and hire her back. On March 16, he sent Ditkowsky a letter saying, “You are receiving this updated IB Offer Letter because based on the new parameters determined by CPS, you are eligible for an automatic offer of employment at LPHS.”

Nothing like that warm and sensitive CPS touch.

But less than a month later, on April 12, Boraz apparently changed his mind. Or someone changed it for him. Either way, he sent Ditkowsky the rescinding letter.

“Before March 21 you were offered a position as an IB teacher at Lincoln Park. Please be advised that the process by which that offer was made is inconsistent with the Board’s creation of the [IB] program at our school. Accordingly, that offer must be rescinded.”

What the heck?

Boraz didn’t get back to me to offer his side of things. But according to Becky Carroll, the chief CPS spokeswoman, principals at schools undergoing a change in “academic focus” are allowed “to select teachers from among qualified applicants.”

In this case, however, an unnamed staff member somewhere in the system “prematurely informed principals to move forward with making offers to teachers with satisfactory or better performance ratings” even if the principals didn’t want to bring them back, Carroll says.

When CPS officials discovered this error, they moved to give principals control over IB hiring, and out came the rescind letters. Meaning it was Boraz’s decision to get rid of Ditkowsky after all.

“We deeply regret that the go-ahead was given” prematurely, Carroll says. But she notes that of the 128 job offers made at Lincoln Park, “only eight were rescinded.”

If there’s any collateral benefit for CPS, it’s that they’ll be replacing higher-paid veterans like Ditkowsky with younger, cheaper nontenured teachers who themselves can look forward to being dumped in a year or two. So my advice to all young people who want to teach in Chicago remains the same: don’t get old.

Meanwhile, Mayor Emanuel can save money on salaries, just in case he really intends to make good on his promise to outfit all those schools with air conditioners and computers.