When Daniel Wohlman, a second-year history teacher at Oak Park and River Forest High School, learned he would be teaching Steve Goldberg’s Modern Middle East course, he went to Goldberg for guidance.

“I went to him and said, ‘Teach me everything you know,’ and he graciously agreed to do that,” Wohlman said during the public comment section of a June 23 school board meeting.

Wohlman is among a host of OPRF history teachers who are incensed after their top choice to fill a recent opening in the division — a veteran history teacher they described as a nationally recognized classroom “superstar” — was overlooked when the board approved the hiring of someone else at last week’s board meeting. 

The new hire, the teachers noted, comes as the history division experiences what some fear is a brain drain, leaving younger and less experienced teachers wary of the prospect of navigating without veteran educators to mentor their professional development.

Goldberg is among at least six veteran history teachers who have already left, or plan on leaving, for various reasons in the last three years, the teachers said. Goldberg retired at the end of this school year.

“You’re talking about probably 120 years of teaching experience lost in three years,” Wohlman said in a recent interview.

Toni Biasello, who has taught history for 12 years at OPRF and served on the faculty senate, expressed her own fear that the loss of prominent veteran teachers could have dire consequences for the school’s academic reputation.

“I’m not that senior, really,” Biasello said during last Thursday’s board meeting. Although she’s at a point where she can mentor new hires, she feels herself stretched thin and “exhausted.”

“I’m very demoralized,” she said. “I’m seeing programs for which we are renowned. … Those programs are phenomenal and they’re at risk of being dismantled and the things that make us really great could go away.”

Jessica Young, a veteran AP European History teacher who has taught at OPRF since 1994, said the “superstar” teacher — whose identity has remained confidential due to the school’s personnel policy — was a first-choice candidate of virtually everyone on the faculty hiring committee and even of top administrators. The district declined to  comment, citing its personnel policy. 

“We have a chance now to get someone who everyone in the entire country wants and who is just that good,” said Young, an award-winning teacher who is herself retiring after next school year.

Young said the highly touted candidate has 27 years of experience and has helped develop the AP tests in subjects such as philosophy and European history that teachers across the country administer.

“I’m personally saddened that, when presented with the opportunity to hire someone who is really a superstar, we don’t take it,” said Biasello.

The teachers speculated that the board’s decision not to consider their first-choice candidate is due to cost concerns, but they’ve also noted that the board didn’t tell them cost would be a criterion before they began vetting dozens of candidates in the busy weeks leading up to final exams.

“The decision of the school goes against the diligent work of the committee,” said OPRF history teacher Katie O’Keefe. “Their recommendation was completely discarded without any explanation as to why.”

The teachers also said that, after their first choice was bypassed, no one from the administration told them about the decision. The candidate, they said, wasn’t told what happened, either. 

“It’s exceedingly rare for teachers like [the first-choice candidate] to put themselves into a candidate pool because he’s become legendary at his own school,” said Wohlman. “Teachers rarely want to leave the schools that made them legendary. The fact that he’s even giving OPRF a look — and doing it on the strength of a personal relationship with somebody who just retired — this is a gift that doesn’t often present itself.”

Young and her colleagues said the manner in which the board dismissed their recommendation has made the faculty hiring committee’s work appear like a façade, intended to mask a hiring process they believe wasn’t entirely transparent.

“It really undermines trust when this kind of stuff happens,” Young said. “It makes the committee seem like it’s a Potemkin village.”

CONTACT: michael@oakpark.com 

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