A crowd of at least 120 parents and community members gathered inside of Lincoln Elementary, 1111 S. Grove Ave. in Oak Park, on Feb. 26 for a public meeting held to discuss the school’s principal turnover crisis, which was prompted by the recent mid-year resignation of Laura Zaniolo. The former principal, who left in January after less than a year in the role, said that her resignation was due to personal reasons.
“Four years, four principals — unacceptable,” District 97 Supt. Carol Kelley said at the meeting’s outset. “I could not agree with you more. So, the reason why I’m here in front of you having a discussion is really to own that and also say that, as a community, we will do everything we can to support our students and staff here at Lincoln.”
Zaniolo’s resignation has jolted the Lincoln school community. One parent’s change.org petition — which demands that the district implement a more rigorous performance evaluation for Kelley, hire additional staff and resources at Lincoln and a secure an outside entity to do a deep dive into the school’s structural problems — has garnered nearly 400 signatures.
Kelley said at the meeting that district administrators had reached out to Zaniolo “several times,” in order to conduct an exit interview with her and, as of last Wednesday, were still waiting to hear back.
The district also hired Reesheda Graham Washington, an Oak Park equity consultant, to explore the deeper reasons behind the school’s turnover problem. At the meeting, Graham Washington said she spent three days conducting in-depth interviews with about 30 people across the district, including parents, teachers, administrators and central office staffers. She said she also spent hours observing Lincoln students in the building. Graham Washington said that her contract runs through March 15 and she will be conducting more interviews and analysis until then.
During her presentation, Graham Washington emphasized that the district needs to resolve a deeper problem before hiring another principal for Lincoln.
“There is a seemingly pervasive relational trust issue between teachers, parents, administrators, central office and the [school] board in all directions,” she said. “Work needs to be done by a third party to re-establish relational trust and find helpful ways to hold and litigate power.”
Graham Washington also said teachers and administrators told her they felt “oppressed (their words)” by the nature of communications, particularly between them and the parent community.
“They overwhelmingly articulated an inability to operate within their professional expertise, feeling as though they are not trusted to do their jobs well. They desired to have more collaborative relationship with the parent community. While this was not a sentiment felt from all or even most parents, it was articulated that the toxicity created by some was weighting on the system and its culture, enough to impact the school community pervasively.”
Graham Washington said this sense of oppression is felt by teachers across the district, who have to deal with parents who can at times be “caustic” and “abusive” toward them.
Graham Washington added some “new and newer” teachers at Lincoln don’t feel accepted and supported, and “are yearning for more robust, healthy and vibrant school culture and climate.”
A major problem related to Zaniolo’s hiring was the “swift and abrupt way in which the hiring committee was prepared for the interview process,” Graham Washington said, adding that committee members had very little time to spend with their packet of information.
“These were all elements that presented themselves as challenges as you were doing the work of hiring the principal who recently resigned,” Graham Washington said.
Graham Washington recommended the district hire additional administrative and social service personnel, and offer more robust professional development, “specifically pertaining to school culture and climate, for staff and administration prior to the onboarding of a new principal.” Those things can be happening at the same time, she said.
Despite the challenges, she said, Lincoln’s students, teachers, staff and administrators showed a “passion for learning” and a “love for Lincoln.” She added that based on her observations, students at Lincoln “seemed happy, safe and engaged,” and complimented them on their resilience — an observation supported by Faith Cole, a former Mann principal and current central office administrator who has a fifth-grader at Lincoln.
“Lincoln staff has been phenomenal,” Cole said, adding that her son has not felt the effects of the principal turnover crisis because of the commitment of the school’s employees.