Whittier School’s shift toward a progressive curriculum was a long process that began with a friendship among Nina Finkel and some like-minded teachers, simmered through the rule of principal Raphael Guajardo, and came to fruition under the Illinois school reform law of 1988.

A decade or so ago Nina Finkel was becoming committed to progressive methods and growing close to teachers who shared her beliefs, notably Mary Canning, who taught first grade, and Paddy O’Reilly, who taught Head Start (and later won a prestigious Golden Apple Award for his teaching).

Raphael Guajardo, the son of Mexican immigrants, had taught at nearby Pickard School and had become principal of Whittier in 1975. He adopted what O’Reilly describes as a laissez-faire attitude toward his faculty. Finkel says, “For the most part I was able to do what I wanted within my own classroom when Mr. Guajardo was here. Yet the clear message was to follow the curriculum guides, and I never felt nurtured.” She won’t comment further. Carmel Kuzlik, who has taught at Whittier for a decade, remembers him as “a good principal. He was highly organized and got things done. He pushed us to go to school, and he moved us around to different classes. Maybe some people didn’t like that, but it did give you a chance to appreciate a different grade level.”

During much of the Guajardo era Whittier’s consuming problem was crowding. In the 1980s more than 800 students attended the school, and classes had to be held in the gym, library, and field house. The school had one boys’ and one girls’ bathroom, both in the basement. The girls’ bathroom was separated from a makeshift classroom only by a swinging door. “Do you know what the smell was like in that basement?” says O’Reilly.

Beginning in the mid-1980s parents–first those associated with the reform group Designs for Change and then a faction linked to the Pilsen Neighbors–demanded that the school be rehabbed. Finkel and another teacher raised a fuss about asbestos in the school, and it was later removed. “I have real strong feelings about pollution and health, and this was right up my alley,” Finkel says.

In 1987 Whittier underwent a $1.1 million rehabilitation. A branch school opened for a short time and further eased crowding. In 1989 the new Irma Ruiz junior high opened in Pilsen, shifting the seventh and eighth grades away from Whittier and cutting its population to a manageable level.

Guajardo receives mixed reviews about how aggressive he was in pushing for the changes. But his main failing seems to have been his tendency to be imperious. “He wasn’t a people person,” says Kuzlik. “He could turn people off.” Alejandro Chaparro, a factory worker and father of four, says, “Every time there was a problem you tried to go up to Mr. Guajardo to solve it, and he was always busy. The teachers were scared. It was his word on everything, and that was final.” Guajardo, who declined to comment on his time at Whittier, also spoke Spanish poorly, which troubled some people.

The advent of school reform in 1988 meant the election of a local school council–six parents, two teachers, two community members, and the principal. Among other things, each LSC was given the power to either retain or dump the sitting principal, and Guajardo became the focus of the election of the first LSC in the fall of 1989. One slate of candidates, headed by Chaparro and composed of Spanish-speaking parents and community members, was outspoken about the need to fire Guajardo. Augustina Guerrero, a mother who’d been active at Whittier for several years, led a second slate that was friendlier to him. The election was complicated by outside forces. Chaparro denies that his slate was backed by the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), though that was the scuttlebutt. Guerrero says she drew support from the competing Pilsen Neighbors.

Guerrero’s slate went down to a humiliating defeat. The faculty and staff had been split over Guajardo. The bilingual teachers stood with him; O’Reilly and Finkel were among those pitted against him. But the majority of faculty and staff favored Guajardo, and two teachers who were relatively friendly to him landed on the council.

As the Chaparro-led LSC took office, Guerrero mounted a campaign to keep Guajardo. “Our [test] scores at Whittier weren’t great,” she says, “but I felt he was somebody we could work with.” Fliers went out on his behalf, arguing that he’d helped to relieve the crowding and had established a program to bring Hispanic role models to speak at Whittier. The atmosphere turned bitter, and tensions ran high among the faculty. “Everybody was fighting constantly,” says Kuzlik. “The kids weren’t learning anything.”

Guajardo apparently knew his days were numbered, yet according to Guerrero he behaved with dignity. Chaparro suspects he was being nice in an attempt to buy his job back–and told him so. “Mr. Guajardo would take us out to lunch, and I’d tell him, “Hey, don’t think because you do this you’re going to buy our votes.”‘ When the LSC voted on February 23, 1990, only three hands, including those of the two teachers, went up in his favor. “This was a difficult decision for the council to make,” Chaparro wrote Guajardo the following month. “We commend you for the fifteen years of service you have given this school.”

Anger over the decision continued into the spring. In March Chaparro was arrested for assaulting Guerrero’s niece on the Whittier playground; charges were subsequently dropped. Later that month a shouting match at an LSC meeting resulted in the council being thrown out of the Boys & Girls Club where they were meeting. Guajardo ended the school year and was subsequently hired as principal of the Disney Magnet School. Guerrero withdrew her three children from Whittier; when she ran for Whittier’s LSC a year ago as a community representative she mustered few votes, though she’s now chairman of the LSC at Curie High School.

When Whittier’s LSC members went looking for a new principal, they were intent on luring candidates who were open to nontraditional teaching styles. “We wanted everybody at Whittier to be free to teach the children as they felt they should,” says Chaparro. He points to Finkel, who taught one of his sons. “You know how she loves the woods and the wilderness, nests, and Mother Nature. Instead of having a child sit at a desk, she creates an atmosphere that gives the child freedom, where he can express himself within the room.”

In July 1990 they hired Irene DaMota, the acting principal at Pasteur School, from a field of some 40 candidates. Her resume was the last one they received, but certain things about her impressed them. “The other people we interviewed would say, ‘The parents are the boss,'” says Chaparro. “Mrs. DaMota was more concerned about how the teachers felt.” He remembers that in her interview she seemed to speak more to the teachers than to anyone else.

Chaparro, still the LSC’s chairman, is pleased with the council’s choice. “The school looks brighter,” he says. “More important, Irene says to the teachers, ‘You can teach in your classrooms without me telling you what to do.’ There is criticism that she’s too loose–and that Nina Finkel is too loose. But I say the teachers didn’t care before, that they were just in it for a paycheck. We want teachers who will create better human beings out of children.”