SOUTH LOOP — The embattled principal of a South Loop selective-enrollment high school is one step closer to being removed from his post after the local school council recommended firing him.
Jones College Prep’s council voted 8-2 Wednesday to ask CPS CEO Pedro Martinez to approve written charges against Principal Joseph Powers and start the process to fire him. Powers has led the school for 14 years.
The vote occurred around 12:45 a.m. Wednesday after a tense and combative seven-hour virtual meeting. Math teacher Kimberly Bowman and Jones Development Director Troy Hilbrands voted no.
Martinez has 45 days to approve or reject the school council’s request to take administrative action, but ultimately it falls to the schools chief to decide Powers’ future.
Powers did not make any comments during the meeting or after the vote, only requesting the board set a date to discuss filling a parent representative spot on the board.
Local school council members Cassie Creswell, Sarah Ma and Leni Manaa-Hoppenworth have accused Powers of failing to prevent discrimination against students and teachers, financially mismanaging the school, and not addressing years of complaints of inappropriate behavior against two teachers, including a drama instructor who was suspended in October amid a misconduct investigation.
Other complaints they made against Powers include him not resolving Title IX violations for sports teams, accessibility issues for trans and gender non-conforming students and discrimination against nonwhite teachers; and failing to properly report school finances. They also accused him of violating the district’s residency policy, saying he owns a home in St. Louis but rents an apartment in Chicago.
But the effort to oust Powers proved highly unpopular among parents. Dozens spoke Tuesday night in support of Powers, and accused Creswell, Ma and Manaa-Hoppenworth of attempting a “power grab.” Several parents also said the problems the school council members have publicized don’t reflect the experiences they and their children have had at Jones, and they felt “blindsided” by the effort to remove Powers.
Teacher Michelle Parada told the council more than 600 parents signed a petition in support of Powers, while another petition has been circulating among students and staff.
“If you drive him out of this school, a lot of staff will leave,” said Melissa Ramirez, a Jones parent and former student. “Things will change and blow up in your face. It’s very disruptive to remove a principal — especially a principal that’s not doing a bad job. … You’re not speaking for all of us.”
Students shared mixed feelings about the situation. Several also blasted the council, saying they were not told of last month’s appeal to CPS leaders to remove Powers and many learned of the conflict through news media. Some also said adults on the board have routinely tried to silence and criticize its younger members, even as students have spoken out about Powers in recent days.
Other students said Powers and his administration should be held accountable for longstanding issues at the school, particularly concerning the environment for marginalized students. But some said did not think abruptly ousting Powers was a solution and did not agree with the local school council’s approach.
“There absolutely are serious issues with Jones, but the LSC is not exempt,” senior Zoe Weinstein said. “The moral superiority this LSC claims is not warranted nor supported by their actions. … I acknowledge the need for change at Jones, but this LSC is only furthering the divide.”
‘It Hurts The Students’
The vote on Powers’ future came days after he emailed parents, students and staff, calling out the local school council for “undermining his leadership” and waging a campaign to oust him. Powers wrote the letter after learning council members contacted Martinez and the Chicago Board of Education’s inspector general Will Fletcher in February with complaints about his leadership.
Powers said the local school council leadership has been combative and unfairly critical of him and his administrators. He said the council gave him poorer ratings for his job performance than previous boards, quickly implemented hours-long meetings and made unreasonable demands on their time.
Local school council members have been “openly” attacking school leaders, improperly intervening in school operations, and “attacking me for visiting my wife on weekends at our home in St. Louis and attempting to spend some time with my children,” Powers wrote.
Powers said he felt this occurred “with the express intention of forcing me out as principal of Jones College Prep and taking direct control of the school” at 700 S. State St. He wrote he wasn’t sure he wanted to continue in the post in the face of the criticism.
“In truth, I do not know if I want to continue this fight,” Powers wrote. “I could have retired years ago, but have instead devoted a great portion of my life and labor to the school that I love and the Jones College Prep family, to the frequent detriment of my own family and my own health.
“I do not want to spend the rest of my time as principal of Jones College Prep, however long that may be, fighting a rearguard action against this handful of agenda-driven malcontents” Powers wrote. “There is far too much work to be done every day to support our students, our talented faculty and staff, and the families who entrust their children to our care. Even if I do retire, it will not stop the efforts of current Jones Local School Council leadership from undermining the work we have all dedicated ourselves to at Jones.”
Creswell confirmed she, Ma and Manaa-Hoppenworth took their concerns to district leaders. In addition to the misconduct allegations, they said they did not think Powers was doing enough to support a welcoming environment for students and teachers across various races and genders.
Creswell told Block Club that Powers has been slow to recruit and retain more BIPOC teachers and students in the school of nearly 2,000 students.
“We urge you to act with all due haste because of the serious risk of ongoing and future physical and psychological harm for the students of Jones College Prep, and the chronic and systemic discrimination against Jones students, employees and families of protected categories,” the parent representatives wrote in their letter in February.
An attorney with the school board told the local school council last week they were reviewing the allegations but they would not remove Powers from the job while investigations continue. District policy for removing an administrator requires there be an immediate safety threat to students or staff, or clear evidence of corruption, General Counsel Joseph T. Moriarty wrote, and district leaders did not feel any of that was the case with Powers or at Jones.
Some teachers and parents criticized the Jones Local School Council for moving forward with efforts to fire Powers after CPS leaders rebuffed their plea to immediately remove the principal. Parent Sarah Anderson urged the council to “take a step back” and punt on any hasty actions to vote out their principal, saying “it causes pain, it causes chaos and it hurts the students.”
While parents overwhelmingly supported Powers and rallied behind him, students were far more critical of his leadership.
Junior Yamali Rodas, who has advocated for undocumented students and parents, told the group they don’t feel supported or heard by Powers. She said her request for interpreters for Jones families has been largely ignored, even though funding was allotted for that purpose.
Rodas also said she’s afraid of interacting with Powers because the principal doesn’t engage certain students.
“The money just disappeared. That could’ve been put toward three part-time interpreters. Jones claims it’s about diversity but it doesn’t do much to be an inclusive school,” Rodas said.
Sophomore Maya Smith-Munyi said she’s never interacted with Powers, “but that’s precisely the problem.”
“He doesn’t feel like a principal the same way Jones doesn’t feel like a school,” Smith-Munyi said. “I’ve never seen him interact with students or participate in school events, or even do announcements at the end of the day.”
Jasmine Gowdy, a Black alumni who attended the school from 2010 to 2014, spoke of how she regularly experienced racism from teachers, incidents that were “glossed over because Jones is a high-performing school.”
“At the end of the day, the students are what matters, not the figurehead…students should not be silenced for a shiny building and reputation of a school,” Gowdy said.
Daniel Andrade, a student representative on the board, said many parents had “rose-colored glasses” about the school experience for minorities. Like Gowdy, he also said too many parents were praising the school’s stellar reputation, which he said came at the cost of “ignoring a lot of the abuses that are occurring at our school.”
“There are systemic changes that need to be made to uplift students of color, which I just don’t see,” Andrade said. “And student testimonies from today have shown that students of color are not really being supported.”
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