Hancock High School students protest the dismissal of Principal Vanessa Puentes outside an LSC meeting Sept. 7, 2023. Credit: Noah Glasgow/Block Club Chicago

CLEARING — Parents, students and teachers wanting to know why a Southwest Side high school principal was given the boot by the local school council may get their answer next week.

Vanessa Puentes has served as principal at John Hancock College Preparatory High School, 5437 W. 64th Place, since 2019. The local school council voted 5-4 last month not to renew Puentes’ contract, which ends in January, sparking protests by students and staff who said they were blindsided by the decision.

Parents, students and teachers continued their protest at a meeting of the local school council Thursday night.

“Who do we want? Mrs. Puentes! When do we want her? Now!” they chanted during a rally before the meeting.

The reason for Puentes’ dismissal has not been made public by the local school council, which conducts faculty evaluations in closed session. 

Kinshasha Ford, director of local school councils for Chicago Public Schools, said Thursday the council is required by law to deliver the reasons for the dismissal to Puentes by this coming Tuesday, at which point Puentes would be at liberty to make those reasons public. 

Puentes, who was at Thursday’s meeting, indicated that she intends to make the council’s report public when she receives it.

“The LSC is charged with an enormous and important role. There are times that the decisions that they make, we may not be in agreement with, but they have valid reasons,” Ford said. 

Puentes’ dismissal has met with fierce community pushback. A petition started by Hancock students has gathered over 2,300 student signatures in support of Puentes’ reinstatement. 

“[Puentes] supports her students, she is there for her students. And if as a parent, if I ever have a concern, I know I can go to her and she’s going to get back to me,” said parent Lynn Shepka, who has helped to organize protests in support of Puentes. 

Many parents expressed frustration Thursday with the school council’s secrecy on the reasoning behind the dismissal.

“As a parent, I think they are obligated to [explain the dismissal],” parent Vanessa Casillas said before the meeting. “I want to know, why did you make that decision? Why is she not fit in your eyes to be principal when everyone else feels that she is?” 

Principal Vanessa Puentes of John Hancock College Preparatory High School was ousted by the local school council in August 2023. Credit: Noah Glasgow/Block Club Chicago

The failure of the council to acknowledge Puentes’ strong support among teachers constituted a major failing, some teachers and staff said. 

In a petition shared privately with Block Club, dozens of Hancock Prep teachers called for the resignation of teacher Froylan Jimenez from his role as teacher representative on the advisory board. The report alleges that Jimenez willfully neglected to “solicit the input of his constituents” and voted against the “overwhelming majority” in his decision not to renew Puentes’ contract. 

Hancock librarian Tim Toner, who spoke first during the public comment portion at Thursday’s meeting, criticized the school council for limiting public input to a maximum of only three speakers at previous meetings. 

“It is the business of the LSC to listen to what [people] have to say in order to have informed opinions. If you do not have time to exercise this fundamental responsibility, you do not have the time to serve as an LSC rep,” Toner said to cheers. 

“You’re not listening to the community, to the parents, to the students, you’re not listening to the elected officials,” another parent added. 

One Hancock teacher called the council’s procedural difficulties “weaponized incompetence.” She said that the council’s repeated failure to understand their own bylaws has led to a collapse of confidence in the school community. 

The school council’s Aug. 15 vote was not the first time it had attempted to resolve the renewal of her contract. A preliminary vote in June, 8–1 in favor of renewal, was ruled null on procedural grounds because the council failed to conduct the requisite “comprehensive evaluation.”

Ford said Thursday subsequent votes in July and early August were also ruled invalid. In one instance, the council had attempted to vote in closed rather than open session. In another, the council had used written, secret ballots where an audible vote was required. 

“As this meeting has gone on, I’ve been more and more frustrated … We expect the kids to follow the rules. But how can we do that when adults are not following the rules?” one Hancock parent said Thursday.  

Thursday’s marathon meeting ran for more than two and a half hours. An attempt to amend the meeting agenda to allow Ford to speak led to a full half-hour of procedural confusion. Multiple late council members added to the early delay. 

A student representative implored his fellow council members to reconsider the renewal of Puentes’ contract. Students are not allowed to vote for or against the renewal of a principal’s contract. 

“We do not have a voice in this, so please be our voice,” the student said. 

Braden Shepka, a senior at Hancock, said council members were out of touch with daily life at Hancock. 

“You’re supposed to represent parents, teachers, staff, students. [But] I don’t see you present at school events … I’m here at almost every school event. I don’t see any of you guys here. We had a back-to-school event. Where were you?” Shepka said.

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