In Open Letter to CPS, Ogden Parents Call for Beyer’s Return as Principal

Editor’s Note: On Monday night, Ogden International parents met with CPS officials to discuss the removal of Principal Michael Beyer. Many declared support for his reinstatement. This open letter outlines their arguments in favor of his retention.

Last Thursday, parents at Chicago’s Ogden International School received a letter informing us that Dr. Michael Beyer had been removed from his position as our principal and “reassigned.” I write on behalf of over 350 parents who see this as a grave injustice and a threat to the stability of our community.

The basis for Chicago Public Schools’ decision to Dr. Beyer was a report by the Office of the Inspector General (OIG)  alleging that Ogden employees under Dr. Beyer’s direction provided misleading enrollment data to CPS when parents notified the school of lengthy absences due to travel. The report’s author recommended that Dr. Beyer be fired.

However, as explained below, a careful reading shows that the OIG report is based on an investigation that was incomplete and speculative. The investigator made recommendations based on partial information and assumptions that do not square with the facts. CPS relied on those recommendations to the detriment of a beloved principal, and indeed an entire community. There is still time for the members of leadership at CPS to course-correct now that the fatal flaws in the report have been revealed. We implore them to do so.

First, some context: Ogden is a K-12 International Baccalaureate public school. Due to a recent merger with  Jenner Academy for the Arts, Ogden now has three campuses serving elementary, middle, and high school students. The student population is one of the most ethnically diverse in the CPS system – composed of students who speak a total of 49 different languages. These are the children of diplomats stationed at nearby embassies, and of transplant families from all over the world. When we say Ogden International School, we mean it.

This heavy international presence is the backdrop for the practices scrutinized in the OIG report that recommended firing Dr. Beyer. It is not unusual for some Ogden families to have to travel for extended periods of time because of work, visa, or family obligations in their home countries. Ogden’s administrators must be sensitive to such circumstances, even while repeatedly stressing the damage done by absences.

What the OIG Report Says, and Doesn’t Say

In making its recommendations, the OIG report relies on data from 2015-2018 showing a small number of students were coded as being unenrolled, then re-enrolled, to avoid having excessive unexcused absences due to travel. It cherry-picks excerpts from email communications with a handful of parents, and purports to show that Ogden administrators encouraged or condoned temporary changes in enrollment status as a means of gaming the system. According to the report, by entering codes in the District’s database indicating the students as withdrawn for transfer or homeschooling, Ogden could protect its attendance statistics.

The reality is that parents make their own choices about absences and enrollment. Administrators and staff are left to provide the best information they can about CPS policy and next steps. The OIG report ignores the difficulty of navigating this process smoothly with dozens of families year after year. Are Ogden administrators supposed to deny the student the ability to come back to school? Are they supposed to report the parents to the police for truancy? Or should they welcome the student back into the school and get on with the job of educating the child. The OIG report offers no insight in this situation because it strictly considers the rules without considering the equities.

Unfortunately, that’s hardly the report’s worst omission. In fact, though it alleges “scheming” by parents and administrators at Ogden, it is lacking in interviews of families. Both families who withdrew their children and families who had extended absences but did not withdraw students have come forth since the report. These parents have documentation and emails that would provide a more comprehensive picture – including proof that the practice of temporarily un-enrolling their children was perpetuated over the years by parents suggesting it to other parents, NOT by administrators suggesting it. The brief email excerpts in the OIG report are insufficient to draw universal conclusions, but investigators relied on them rather than collecting the most obvious body of evidence.

Lastly, the OIG report makes no mention of the massive growth and transformation that are taking place at Ogden. This year is the first year of Ogden’s merger with Jenner, which was a severely under-resourced school serving mostly low-income students of color. Bringing these two schools together as one body was the result of a bottom-up process of parents, community members and especially the hard work of Dr. Beyer and Jenner’s late principal, Robert Croston. The process was time consuming and difficult. Plenty of parents from both schools were initially unhappy about the merger, but the majority saw it for what it was: a chance to join communities, to model for all of CPS an equitable solution to inequitable funding structures. Things are going remarkably well, but we are only two short months in. The OIG report includes no analysis of the impact firing our principal might have on the merger.

So what does the OIG Report include?

• It acknowledges that the CPS policy surrounding withdrawing and re-enrolling students for extended absences is unclear and inconsistently enforced.
• It acknowledges that decisions about enrollment and homeschooling rest entirely with parents.
• It quotes multiple individuals as stating that any practices alleged against Ogden administrators were common at other schools, and did not originate during Dr. Beyer’s administration.
• In counting the instances of purported falsification, the report admits that at least one of the families in question was counseled by CPS Central Office to un-enroll the student during the absence, and that others were absences for visa renewals (which were not guaranteed to be temporary).
• Most importantly, it contains more than 10 instances of Ogden administrators stating explicitly to parents and interviewers that absences for travel are unexcused and should be avoided. In drawing conclusions about Dr. Beyer’s state of mind, the OIG report relies on short utterances devoid of their context, while ignoring his clear and unambiguous statements that are consistent with CPS policy.

Next Steps: Give Us Back Our Principal

The OIG has drawn incorrect and inappropriate conclusions about the actions and motivations of Dr. Michael Beyer and the rest of the administrators at Ogden International School. In providing this incomplete and biased report to CPS, the OIG has caused CPS to take drastic action that is completely unwarranted. The alleged infraction does not match the proposed punishment.

Currently Ogden is the only school in CPS with 3 campuses. The job of running Ogden is extremely demanding and requires years of experience as a principal. Under Dr. Beyer, the school has begun to stabilize after the turmoil caused by staggering rates of principal turnover over the last ten years. Right now, more than ever, we need stability and experience in leadership to achieve our community’s vision of equal, high-caliber education for all with our historic merger.

Specifically, we need and want the leadership that Dr. Michael Beyer has brought to our school for the last three years.

We acknowledge that no person is above criticism, including Dr. Beyer. However, removing him at this time will not only destroy his career needlessly; it will jeopardize the education of our children, and the success of our recent merger. Give us back our principal.

 

Photo: Michael Beyer greets an Ogden Elementary student on the first day of school. This year marked the launch of the community-generated plan to merge Ogden with nearby Jenner Elementary. (Photo credit: Stacey Wescott/Chicago Tribune.)

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Laura Britton

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