The Shake Up
Narrated by Bridget Vaughn
[moderate tempo music with a poppy beat]
BRIDGET VAUGHN: Each day, in the 1996-97 school year, one in four Robeson students were skipped school. CPS knew something had to change. In 1997, CPS decided to reconstitute the high school, which meant all 97 teachers had to re-apply for their jobs —positions that some teachers held for many years.
JAMES EGGLESTON: The state would get mandating that the schools had to become better or they would take over. So I guess they made some kind of compromise that go in and take out some teachers, whatever, try to make it better.
VAUGHN: James Eggleston started teaching math at Robeson in 1980. Shirley Harris, a 1985 graduate, remembers Eggleston as one of her favorite teachers.
SHIRLEY HARRIS: Mr. Eggleston what I really like with him is that he really really opened up to me The year before I had Mr Dover, and when I got Mr. Eggleston that was when I was expecting my daughter and it wasn’t like i am going to give her a pass shes going to do the homework and participate in front of the class. And if you didnt know it he would walk you through it or have someone in the class walk you through it.
VAUGHN: Dr. Lipman, the director of the Univeristy of Illinois Chicago’s Collaborative for Equity and Justice in Education, says school actions like closings and reconstitutions are problematic because they’re not driven by the school community.
DR. PAULINE LIPMAN: It’s not a process where people say there are things we need to change in the school, how might we change things. They are all imposed, and they are imposed by external actors.
VAUGHN: 1994 alum Dwayne Booker wished there was something the school had done about some of his teachers, those that were burnt out and incapable of reaching the students.
DWAYNE BOOKER: You come in being a great teacher, then after so long you just get burned out. Sometimes you just need a break and go someplace else and bring some new blood.
VAUGHN: When Dwyane was told about the 1997 reconstitution, he did not believe firing teachers was the best for them. Instead, taking a break ffrom teaching, like a line change in ice hockey, or a substitution in a basketball game, would have been more appropriate.
BOOKER: Like, hey, this guy get pulled for the sixth man to come in and give him a break, then he come back and whatnot. Just a break because sometimes you do get burnt out because you lose focus. Once you lose that focus, it's hard to regain that focus. So it's just like taking a break and go someplace else. Teach for two or three years. Then you come back and realize why you at Robeson, what's the reason you're here to reach the students? The ones that y'aknow everyone gave up on.
VAUGHN: Because of ongoing problems with low reading scores, Robeson was one of seven schools to be reconstituted. Then-CPS CEO Paul Vallas, who recently announced he's riunning for mayor, said at the time, “Sometimes you just have to start over.” As a reconstituted school, Robeson became eligible for a $150,000 grant for renovations and new programs. The new Robeson was unveiled for the '97-'98 school year with a new mural of Paul Robeson and a new academy system. Seven academies were developed by Robeson staff. All freshman were in the freshman academy. Students in other grades chose from six other academies—mathematics, science and technology, allied health, military sciences, world languages, and computer graphics. One hundred to two hundred students would be in each of the academies. The academy system was designed as a way for Robeson studnets not to fall through the cracks.
For James Eggleston, however, the reconstitution—designed to uplift— actually fractured school communities.
EGGLESTON: I really hated I felt we got broken up. We were dedicated to that school because we could've easily transfer out to other schools. You know, but we had been there, we had a strong bond with each other. We had a strong bond. We liked the kids, we loved the kids. We went donate money so kids could get Tuxedos and stuff for their prom. Used to do all that. pay, pay for their tickets, whatever they send around a note. So and so, she needs some money for a prom dress. Can you help? So we we donate $5, $10. and then somebody go take them to go get the prom dress? Yeah. I've driven students to their interview for college. I've driven them to college.
VAUGHN: Then-principal James E. Breashears, who passed away in 2015, said at the time that although the reconstitution happened fast, the shake-up helped make goals clear once the dust settled. “A little fear can be very helpful,” Breashears is quoted as saying. Former president Barack Obama, who was a state senator at the time, weighed in on the action saying, “A major reconstitution such as this takes some time to kick in.” But one year after the reconstitution, there was hardly any change in reading level performance. Attendance improved slightly, but was still well below the city average. And reconstitution had an unintended effect: some teachers that CPS wanted to re-hire decided to leave anyway. Their reason: the campus was "depressed."
Eggleston was one of them.
EGGLESTON: About 57 teachers left about 25 were not re-hired and about another 27 or 30 of us left. So it really kind of destroyed the whole family.”]
VAUGHN: Some of the teachers that left, left in favor of charter schools. And so begins a new chapter in Chicago Public School history, and thus, Robeson High School history.