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Carol Felsenthal
On politics

CPS Principal Troy LaRaviere Whacks Rahm—and Still Keeps His Job

We asked the outspoken CPS critic if he’d consider running for mayor—he didn’t say no.

Blaine Elementary principal Troy LaRaviere has been an outspoken critic of the mayor's education policies  Photo: Chris Sweda/Chicago Tribune

He’s a sixth-year African American principal at one of Chicago’s best neighborhood schools. He has lambasted Rahm Emanuel repeatedly for, among many shortcomings, caring more about his donors than the city’s children. He energetically campaigned for Rahm’s opponent, Chuy Garcia, in last year’s mayoral election. Blaine Elementary principal Troy LaRaviere has been both nominated to be president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association and formally reprimanded by the Board of Education.

The 45-year-old former teacher has been one of the most outspoken critics of Emanuel and top Chicago Public Schools officials on a wide array of issues, including the longer school day, standardized testing, and what he calls wasteful spending—while not investing enough in classrooms. During a meeting at a coffee shop near his school, dressed in his suit-and-tie work clothes, the south side native explained why he became a teacher, after his girlfriend (and eventual wife) pushed and shoved him into applying to college, even though his confidence-sapping CPS years left him thinking he was stupid and bound to flunk out.

LaRaviere remarked on the symbolism of an all-white Local School Council hiring him, 50 years after his mother was forced to leave the north side because of the color of her son’s skin. And in last month’s Illinois primary, he was one of Bernie Sanders’ biggest backers—using the occasion to take another whack at the mayor, saying, “the chief politician standing in the way of us getting good schools is our mayor.” If elected to head the CPAA, he told me, he’ll be leaving CPS and Blaine.

When I asked the telegenic LaRaviere, who tells his up-from-poverty and low self-esteem story often and well, if he could see himself running for mayor, he didn’t say no.

We talked for 90 minutes, or, I should say, he talked—he never seems to run out of words or energy. Here’s a condensed and edited transcript of our conversation.

Biography first: Tell me about yourself.

My mother was a white woman from the north side. When my oldest brother was born, she was told she had to leave the north side because she couldn’t bring a black child into the neighborhood, so she moved to the south side.

My mother would send us to my younger brother’s grandparents’ house every weekend, to keep us out of our neighborhood. My grandparents were in a working class section of either West Englewood or Auburn Gresham. Everybody worked, had a job.

What happened to your father? Did your parents divorce?

They never married. He wasn’t around much. He lived three blocks away from us for three years and I probably saw him three times in those three years. I grew up with my younger brother’s father as my father. I graduated from Dunbar, a vocational high school, at age 16. I left Mollison Elementary School at 12. I got in a lot of trouble and I think they wanted to get rid of me.

There was this girl, Margaret, who lived across the street. She became my girlfriend. She went to [selective enrollment school] Whitney Young. We could not have had two more opposite lives. She had a two-parent household, she was an only child, and she was going to college from the day she was born. My mother hadn’t graduated from high school and never mentioned the word college to me.

In her junior year at U. of I., [Margaret] kept pushing me to go to college, and I kept saying, “I can’t do it, I’ll fail.” I didn’t know it at the time, but, if you are a member of group that is publicly stereotyped to be deficient in a certain area—and it doesn’t have to be race, could be women and mathematics—then you tend to avoid that area of life for fear of affirming the stereotype.

[Margaret eventually prevailed and LaRaviere was accepted to U. of I., where he started earning straight As.]

I looked at my grades and I thought, I almost didn’t come here, thought I wouldn’t measure up to the typical U. of I. student, and here I was with straight As. What had given me such a low and false impression of myself? And how many others out there were there like me, who could succeed at this but would never try? It was then that I made up my mind to become a teacher.* No kid who comes through my classroom will leave that classroom without understanding their potential and what they can do.

You’ve also been harshly critical of the top officials of CPS and members of its board, appointed by the mayor. One result was a “warning resolution” passed last August ordering you to be quiet. Did they pass it so they could be justified in firing you?

Exactly. But the only repercussions have been positive. …. The warning resolution widens the scope of Chicagoans [who] are going to pay attention. So it just gave me a wider platform from which to highlight the impact of their mismanagement and recklessness.

There have been several CPS chiefs since Rahm became mayor—Jean-Claude Brizard, Barbara Byrd-Bennett, Forrest Claypool. Has one been better than another?

None of them determines policy.

Policy is determined by?

The mayor’s office. Network chiefs [to whom principals report] get their marching orders straight from someone straight from the mayor’s communications office. I remember when they were doing the longer school day, network chiefs were told to come down on [CPS employees] speaking publicly against the longer day.

Who formulates the policies? I have no clue. My guess is that they get formulated by the people who give [the mayor] campaign donations.

You’ve been particularly unrelenting in your criticism of Mayor Emanuel.

That’s one of the things that I don’t particularly like. It’s just that Rahm has given me so many opportunities to criticize poor management; he’s given me so many opportunities to criticize reckless fiscal behavior.

I don’t know him. I’ve met him three times, all before my criticism became so public. I had nothing against him. I was glad to meet the mayor. I almost voted for him. Then I became involved with having to implement his policies; saw how reckless they were; how poorly designed; how none of them had any evidence base behind them. All these theories that businessmen pull out of their behinds, one policy after another after another after another. Eventually you see a pattern and you have to speak out, and that’s what I did.

Did you support the longer day?

No, because of poor understanding of educational research. The research doesn’t say that the more time a kid spends in school the more he learns; the more time a kid spends on-task, the more the kid learns. Being on task is not a function of the time spent in school; it’s a function of a teacher’s skill.

Do you have any political ambitions? Can you see yourself running for mayor?

I can see myself doing whatever is necessary to change the reality of the city…. But do I have plans? No.

Last Friday, the Chicago Teachers Union staged a controversial one-day strike. Did the 2012 teachers’ strike benefit the schools?

What the strike did for me is it helped me to see more clearly how untrustworthy this administration was. That was a turning point for me; the beginning of my distrust of the Emanuel administration, … The fact that they came to principals and said, you cannot state your opinion about the school board. They threatened us. It tells me that you don’t believe in some of the basic principles of democracy; that it can involve people like us who are in the best position to talk about policy.

The Chicago Teachers Union staged a one-day strike on Friday. Photo: Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune

Did you speak out during the strike?

I wrote a letter to the whole community—all my parents, students, basically saying the board has to respect a position that is reasonable. The teachers have a reasonable position. Let them work this out in these negotiations and welcome them back when the strike is over. I posted the letter on the school’s web site. I sent it to my boss, the then-network chief. He told me, “Take that letter down immediately. There will be no communication except through the board.” I took it down. The next day I stood on the picket line.

A strike this year, perhaps in May, do you support that?

I think a strike is the last opportunity we have to hold this administration accountable for the reckless fiscal management, the last possible way we have to force them to make changes. If the teachers settle, they can continue the reckless spending that got us into this situation; signing multi-million-dollar contracts with agencies that deliver poor services, like the Aramark cleaning contract, the [principal training] SUPES contract.

You were an early critic of SUPES principal training before we knew that Barbara Byrd-Bennett was taking kickbacks. Why?

It was a waste of my time. Only one of them run by SUPES went well. Just as I was thinking about why this one was different from the others, the facilitator said, “I’m sorry I went off the script today, but I thought I would just let you guys talk to each other and learn from each other.” And then it hit me, they have to spend $23 million to put principals in a room to talk to each other?

You and Chuy Garcia were Bernie Sanders’ major local surrogates. Did you get to know him?

I met him, with about 15 other people, at Argo High School in Summit, the Friday night before the Illinois primary. I asked him some questions about schools. I mentioned that we haven’t heard about education from any campaign, and he said he was going to mention it the very next morning. He had an education-related press conference. I guess by then they had shown him the two-minute commercial I appeared in [in which] I talk about education in the context of my life story. That Saturday morning he saw me and gave me a hug.

Do you favor an appointed school board like we currently have at CPS or an elected school board?

Elected doesn’t always mean representative… Elected? I mean, Rahm’s elected and that didn’t get us anywhere.

I think you’re going to have to have a very large board that ‘s going to make it more representative. You’re going to have to have people who run from a particular geographic section and represent that section, have to live in that section, maybe have kids in schools there so they have some skin in the game, so they have a reason to want the schools to be successful; not a reason to profit from schools’ failures.

Should potential board members who have school-aged children be required to send them to CPS?

I think a percentage of them should. Also, you have to have experts. You have to have people on the school board who know something about teaching and learning. I would, for example, maybe have three positions that are designated to be research/university faculty in the areas of education—curriculum instruction, education leadership, cognitive psychology. Also, I think the local business community should have representation on the school board.

Before starting at Blaine, you taught in Chicago at a school on the west side, then went to Social Justice High School, taught there and became an assistant principal, later an assistant principal at a “turnaround school.” What’s next?

Up to that point I had always worked at schools that were 99 percent low-income and predominantly African American or Latino. That was the population that I imagined when I got into teaching. Kids like me, who went through 13 years of schooling without any sense of their potential. Looking at the principals’ openings, I would always look at the demographics, the low-income kids and if it was 90 percent, 80 percent or above, that was the sign for me that that’s the school I want to be in. I remember seeing the school Blaine, and for some reason I didn’t pass it up like I normally do.

[Blaine is 5.4 percent black, 23.7 percent Hispanic, 60.5 percent white, and 18.6 percent low income.]

I applied and one of my references called me and said, “They [Local School Council members] asked me, how would you recommend we introduce him to our [community]?” And he was uneasy with the question. I had heard that before in a very different way. When my grandmother told my mother, “You can’t bring that child into this community,” I had thought she was a racist. But after she died, and I finally met my mother’s side of the family, I realized that it was not exactly her own racism; it was fear of other peoples’ racism. “You can’t bring a black child into this neighborhood because these people will kill us.” So [I realized] that they were leaning toward me but weren’t quite sure how the people who elected them would respond to me.

What I realized was that 50 years before my mother had to leave the north side because of the color of one of her sons; now, 50 years later, another one of her sons was being brought back in to the north side by an all-white Local School Council and being given one of the most important responsibilities you can give someone.

Blaine has a relatively low poverty rate. Do you feel like Blaine students would have done OK without your particular vision and passion?

Of course they would. That’s part of the point I continuously make. Students who live in poverty routinely start kindergarten several years behind students from middle and upper income communities in reading and math. This is, in part, the result of the economic and political neglect of their communities. The politicians and businessmen—including our mayor—avoid acknowledging a gaping hole in their “failing schools” argument: that it cannot possibly be the fault of the school when a child in Englewood arrives on day one of kindergarten three years behind his peers in Lake View at schools like Blaine.

Instead, officials repeatedly blame schools for conditions that are clearly the result of the failure of the officials themselves to enact policies that improve the life circumstances of the families and communities these children are born into. Being at a high-performing school like Blaine helps me to make that argument more convincingly than if I had remained on the south and west sides because there’s no perceived self-interest involved.

[Working at Blaine] put me in a position to have a far more positive impact on the district as a whole than I could have had if I’d remained on the south and west sides. I didn’t know that at the time, but I had that sign from my mother and that was all I needed to take that leap of faith.

During the most recent budget cuts, did you have to cut faculty positions?

We were going to have to cut four to six. The parents threw a fundraiser to cover the remaining balance of those positions, which is $127,000. One of the things I was very proud of is that we have a sister school that we work with, Manierre Elementary School. It’s in the Old Town area. Students live in the housing project across the street. On one side is the housing project [Marshall Field Garden Apartment Homes]; on the other side are million dollar homes. We have a partnership with them where they learn from us and we learn from them. When our parents decided to raise $127,000 to cover our loss, they [agreed to raise] $14,000 to cover Manierre’s loss.

* In a follow-up email, LaRaviere clarified an answer he gave me during our conversation. “My desire to become a teacher was based on more than teaching students ‘who didn’t believe in themselves.’ It was the fact that the system that causes that disbelief wastes so much human potential. It almost wasted mine. I wanted to prevent others from wasting theirs.”
Carol Felsenthal is a lifelong Chicagoan and self-proclaimed political junkie. She writes occasionally for Politico Magazine and The Hill. Her books include biographies of Bill Clinton, Katharine Graham, and Alice Roosevelt Longworth. Among her many stories for Chicago are memorable profiles of Michelle Obama and Bruce Rauner. Follow her on Twitter at @csfelsenthal.


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