After strife, Holmes keeps talking to rebuild trust

? Controversies, racial tensions on the table in series of 'community conversations.'

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By BOB SKOLNIK

The conversation continues at Holmes School. And, that, in and of itself, say parents, teachers and the principal, is progress. After two years of roiling unrest tied to missing school funds, the unexpected resignation of a popular teacher and quiet talk of racism, Holmes stakeholders are still working through a long process aimed at restoring trust on many levels.

At the center is Laurel Muhammad, the school's principal for 17 years.

This spring the school has hosted two community conversations designed to improve the school climate and bring the school community together. Most participants express satisfaction with the dialogue that has taken place. A few parents remain critical of a process they believe still does not dig deep enough into concerns at the school, 508 N. Kenilworth Ave.

It had been a rough few years at Holmes.  Last academic year $220 in yearbook money and approximately $9,000 in school lunch money was found missing from District 97 accounts.  No one was ever charged although an administrative staff member who was involved in handling the money resigned. Then in January 2004 a third grade teacher abruptly resigned under pressure angering many parents. 

But this year the school has been trying to put those controversies behind after a consultant's report identified problems with leadership and communication.  Under the auspices of the School Leadership Team (SLT), a group of nine teachers, nine parents and Muhammad, have hosted a series of community conversations.  The first conversation held in March focused on diversity and the second, held in April, focused on school climate.  A final catch-all community conversation will be held in June.

The diversity conversation drew about 50 people and the April conversation drew about 25.  Sitting around tables in the school's multipurpose room munching sandwiches or chili, the participants shared comments and suggestions about the school.  An outside facilitator was present to keep the discussions on track, but was not really needed often according to participants.

"The community conversations are part of a desire to reconnect," said Muhammad.  "We've come a long way toward re-establishing the level of trust I once had with my community and staff.  I think we've come a long, long way toward rebuilding a school climate around trust and openness."

Sheila Judge Fingerman, the mother of a Holmes fourth grader and member of the SLT, agrees that the conversations have helped.

"They've been incredibly useful," said Judge Fingerman.  "I've been delighted by the frankness of the discussions.  People have been very forthcoming."

Emily Collins, another mother of a Holmes fourth grader and SLT member, was very upset last year when her daughter's third grade teacher, Sasha Goldman, left.  She feels to this day uncertain as to exactly why he left.  But she believes the community conversations have helped to heal rifts that had developed at the school.

"There has been a lot of open conversation, a lot of open dialogue," said Collins.  Collins feels that Muhammad has changed her management style.

"She has really opened up with how she does things," said Collins.  "She is making herself more accessible.  She is definitely more of a listener this year."

Judge Fingerman agrees.  "We've moved forward tremendously this year," said Judge Fingerman.  "She's (Muhammad) worked extremely hard to turn things around."

But not every parent thinks things have changed all that much and believes that wounds remain.  Anglea Bruch, the mother of three Holmes students, has not been able to attend the community conversations because she teaches at DePaul University on Thursday evenings, the night when both community conversations have been held.  Bruch questioned the selection process for the SLT.  Only about 20 parents attended the PTO meeting during which the parent members of the SLT were chosen.

However Bruch does feel that Muhammad is trying to bring the school together.  "I do believe she really wants to improve things, I firmly believe that," said Bruch.  "She has sought me out on a number of things and I appreciate that." Bruch feels, though, that the presence of Muhammad at the community conversations inhibits frank comment. 

"Having Laurel present makes the dialogue shut down" said Bruch.  "There has been a long-standing sense that faculty and families felt if they spoke their mind about issues there would be punitive repercussions.  The leadership was vindictive.  There's never been a safe place to air gripes without fear of retribution.  People simply don't trust her.  That's a really hard thing to win back."

As happens at times in Oak Park, race is bubbling beneath the surface at Holmes.  Some see criticism of Muhammad as repressed racism on the part of white parents with unrealistic expectations of a public school.  And some feel race has been used as a weapon by some parents who have supported Muhammad, who is black, in the past.

"I think there has been this tenor in the school that race has been this dirty word that everyone is afraid to talk about," said Bruch who is white.  "At Holmes school there is a feeling that if you speak your mind you're going to be called a racist.  It's this ugly, dirty device that is used as a device to get us off track."

Muhammad says she is willing to not be present at some meetings although she notes she is an ex officio member of the SLT.

"I don't mind that people have a meeting without me present," said Muhammad.  "I'm willing not to be there, but I'm not willing to let my school fall apart due to emotionalism.  I'm open to criticism.  I'm paid to take criticism.  That's part of my job.  I have broad shoulders."

It is not clear how most parents feel.  Most parents don't attend the community conversations. 

"We have a vocal minority at Holmes that had pushed a negative atmosphere," said Judge Fingerman.  "There is a very large silent majority of parents that are quite happy at Holmes."

Not surprisingly Bruch doesn't agree.  "There is an enormous population of Holmes parents that is burned out, angry and fed up," Bruch said.

"I have a feeling that there has been a feeling of great apathy," said Holmes parent Sharon Ward-Fore.

Most agree that the atmosphere at Holmes is still a work in progress.

"The situation is better this year than last year," said Holmes parent Gwen Anderson who was co-president of the PTO last year and who credits Muhammad with working hard to improve the atmosphere at Holmes.

"She is trying to please everyone, but in a management position you can't," said Anderson.  "She is doing everything she can to keep that school together.  She does as much as she can."

Wendy White, the  mother of a Holmes second grader, agrees that the atmosphere around the school is less tense this year. 

"I think that Holmes school has come a long way in terms of tone," said White.  "People are not shy in Oak Park about voicing their views."

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