Oak Park Elementary School District 97 says it has dismissed some teachers due to “underperformance” during the current school year, even though those teachers had attained tenure while working in the district.

It’s an unprecedented public acknowledgement for an Oak Park school district though officials maintain that tenured teachers have been dismissed in the past. It just hasn’t been publicized.

The latest instance coincides with a movement in the state legislature to reform public education throughout Illinois. One aspect of the recent bill approved last week by the Illinois Senate ties tenure to teacher performance.

Neither D97’s administration nor the Oak Park Teachers Association (OPTA) will say how many tenured teachers were let go or if they taught at one of the eight elementary schools or the two middle schools.

The teachers likely taught for at least five years, since state law requires a teacher to work four full years prior to receiving tenure in the fifth year.

District 97 Supt. Albert Roberts, who was hired in June 2010, confirmed that more than two teachers were let go this year. The superintendent was cautious about getting too specific but noted that two of the dismissals initially stemmed from parents’ concerns. That information, he said, was brought to his attention, which he followed up on.

Both teachers’ past evaluations were looked at to see if any corrective actions were taken. Roberts stressed that teachers — tenured and otherwise — are not fired over an initial concern. The district, he said, employs remediation efforts at the district and state level to help teachers. But if those efforts prove fruitless, Roberts noted that the district has in the past and will continue to part ways with ineffective teachers.

“To me, the standard in Oak Park — and since joining the district it’s been reinforced — is that there’s no room for mediocrity,” he said. “Most of the teachers we employ are exceptional educators who care deeply about students, and they’re a credit to their profession. But from my vantage point, every student deserves to have an excellent teacher helping him or her achieve every year. So the expectation here in District 97 is that we’ll evaluate employee performance and take action when such performances are not acceptable.”

Roberts added that the move to dismiss these tenured teachers was supported by the OPTA. Susan Tresselt, the union’s president and also a 13-year veteran teacher in the district, noted that the union typically works well with the administration regarding helping teachers improve. She also stressed that the process involved in the release of these tenured teachers was fair.

“The state remediation plan has been in place for years and the district has always utilized it,” she said.

The state’s remediation plan includes evaluating their performance in the classroom and how they prepare their lesson plans. Teachers are rated on their performance. A “public notice to remedy” is a separate process that District 97 could also employ to help a teacher improve. The district offers mentoring programs and ongoing professional development for teachers as well.

But Tresselt noted that those efforts sometimes don’t work for every teacher.

“Those can be very difficult conversations,” she said. “There are different levels of consequences available to teachers. After time, if they’re not successful in improving the situation, the next step would be a release.”

Roberts added: “It’s not any one tool that’s used in the evaluation process that sometimes leads to a parting of the ways, but it is an ongoing commitment to truly focus on doing what’s in the best interest of kids that gets us in a position to take appropriate action.”

Another aspect of the state’s reform legislation is looking at “steps” and “lanes” that are utilized in teacher’s contracts — two compensation mechanisms that reward teachers with raises if they attain additional education.

Tresselt said she didn’t have a specific view concerning eliminating lanes and steps in teacher contracts but noted that it’s worth investigating. Roberts, a former classroom teacher himself, maintained that lanes and steps should be looked at as it relates to student performance. Roberts insisted that if a teacher attained additional schooling — and therefore a raise via their contract — that doesn’t mean they become a better classroom teacher. Roberts said this aspect of teacher performance has actually been talked about in the education profession for some time. The superintendent said teacher compensation and performance will be part of the next negotiations with the OPTA when the current teachers’ contract ends in 2014.

“My stance is that, relative to steps and lanes, we need to look at how it impacts the performance of students. We’ll be having those discussions but that’s a matter of negotiations,” he said, referring to the district’s current teachers’ contract, which ends in 2014. “You need a broader perspective in addressing these issues. That’s what’s happened right now with the state and researchers who are looking into this issue. But the thing to do in 2011 is to look at the process, and it does it mean that if you have a master’s level teacher, that it really adds value to the classroom.”

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