Students at CPS John Hancock High School walk out on the second day of school, Aug. 22, 2023, in support for Principal Vanessa Puentes, who was recently removed as principal by the school’s LSC. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CLEARING — Students, teachers and parents are demanding answers after the local school council of a Southwest Side high school voted to oust its principal nearly a week before classes started, blindsiding the school community. 

Members of the local school council voted last week to not renew principal Vanessa Puentes’ contract at John Hancock College Preparatory High School, 5437 W. 64th Place.  

Students, parents and teachers told Block Club the reasoning behind the decision is unclear, as local school council members haven’t been forthcoming with their justifications, they said.  

John Hancock College Preparatory High School principal Vanessa Puentes. Credit: Provided/Chicago Public Schools website

Puentes has been Hancock’s principal since 2019, Chicago Public School employee rosters show. Prior to that she was assistant principal at the school and was previously a teacher there.

School council members couldn’t be reached for comment, though one council member said the group is planning to release a statement soon. 

Puentes also couldn’t be reached. 

Despite the silence from local school council members, the school community is pushing for the principal to be reinstated. 

A student-made petition has garnered over 2,000 signatures as of Wednesday. High schoolers also staged two demonstrations in support of Puentes so far this week — the first being a short sit-in on the first day of school and the second a walkout Tuesday afternoon, during which they marched around the school while chanting and holding posters. 

School community members said they first heard the principal’s contract was up for renewal in June. 

Meeting agendas show the local school council was planning to discuss and vote on Puentes’ contract in June, and minutes of the meeting show members voted in favor of renewing the contract. 

Hancock teacher Jennifer Velasquez said she left that June meeting thinking everything had been settled and there was nothing to worry about. 

“We were really trying to compel the [local school council] to listen to us and answer, ‘Where is this coming from?'” Velasquez said. “We were hoping to really drive this message to them that, ‘You represent us, and the community doesn’t want Ms. Puentes to leave.'”

Council members, however, alerted community members a few days later there had been a procedural error and a new vote had to be conducted, multiple people told Block Club and meeting agendas confirm.

Students at CPS John Hancock High School walk out on the second day of school, Aug. 22, 2023, in support for Principal Vanessa Puentes, who was recently removed as principal by the school’s LSC. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

CPS Chief of Schools Michael Boraz, who oversees Hancock, said the council tried two more times over the summer to vote on the contract but there were once again procedural roadblocks.

Boraz couldn’t speak to the reasoning behind the local school council’s decision to not renew Puentes’ contract as the the council has complete autonomy regarding renewing or not renewing a principal’s contract, he said.

In a special meeting Aug. 15 with nearly a packed room of concerned community members in attendance, the council voted to not renew Puentes’ contract, multiple people told Block Club.

Hancock parents Marco Zamudio and Jenny Antunez were among the attendees at that meeting. After seeing chatter on social media that the principal might be removed, they decided to go. 

Their daughter, who’s a freshman at Hancock this year, got into multiple selective-enrollment high schools but chose Hancock because it was near her West Lawn home, her parents said. But the two said they left last week’s meeting troubled.

“It’s concerning when there’s restructuring, and you have a school where so many people were speaking highly of the principal and then you lose that head of the table,” Antunez said. “I want to know — why does the [local school council] want [Puentes] out?”

Zamudio attended the Tuesday walkout to show his support of the students and other parents there. He said it’s frustrating that the local school council hasn’t been clear in its intentions for removing the principal.

“If they really have specific reasons, I would think they would say it upfront,” he said. “Instead it makes me feel like they’re doing it for their own benefit. Something’s not right in there. We just hope everything gets resolved with what ever’s best for the students. That’s my main concern.”

Students at CPS John Hancock High School walk out on the second day of school, Aug. 22, 2023, in support for Principal Vanessa Puentes, who was recently removed as principal by the school’s LSC. Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago

Jessica Rosenbaum, who’s taught at Hancock for eight years, said the vast majority of teaching staff supports Puentes as principal and don’t want to see her go.

“We have not received a very clear, delineated list of why she should no longer be our principal,” Rosenbaum said. “She is deeply embedded in this community. This is her home.”

Velasquez said the principal’s ouster weighs heavy on her mind as she ponders what this change in leadership could mean for the school. Teachers have worked hard to establish lesson plans and systems at Hancock that work well for students, and Velasquez said she would hate to see that work be in jeopardy.

“To know that from one day to another, a new principal can come in and just be like, ‘Well, this is not going to work, we’re starting all over’ — it would put a dent in the education that the students already are having right now, especially upperclassmen, but also the ones who are to come. It’s not fair that they don’t get to to have that Hancock experience,” Velasquez said.

Maritza and Nancy, both juniors at Hancock, participated in Tuesday’s walkout because they appreciate the school culture Puentes has established in their high school, and they don’t want to see it go, they said.

Nancy, who attended last week’s local school council meeting, said it was frustrating to see the council vote out her principal without justifying it to students.

“It just feels like they’re taking away that consistency that we need, especially as juniors,” she said. “We’re about to take the SATs, we’re preparing for college — it just feels unfair that we can risk losing the format that we’ve grown accustomed to, losing our principal, losing the environment that she’s worked hard to create.”

Having a Hispanic principal leading a school that’s majority Hispanic is significant, especially since Hancock is the only selective-enrollment high school on the Southwest Side, Maritza said.

“Everybody in our school loves Ms. Puentes,” she said.

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