Help wanted: Ogden school looking for sixth principal in six years

Running Ogden International School was a tough enough job, even before it merged with Jenner Academy for the Arts. 

Now Chicago Public Schools prepares to seek the sixth principal in six years, a steady leader who can defy Ogden’s scandal-prone history and help the experiment in integration flourish. 

Related: Lessons from a Chicago school merger: Race, resilience, and an end-of-the-year resignation

Meeting Monday in the library at Ogden’s primary school campus on the Gold Coast, Local School Council members opened a search they hope will lead them to a special person who can temporarily take the reins after acting Principal Rebecca Bancroft’s sudden resignation last month.

“I don’t think we want to rush into just getting anybody,” council Chair Thea Kachoris-Flores said. “But I do think that we really need someone who is strong, because it’s important to have strong leadership to make sure that we continue to move forward.”

Related: How one Chicago principal is leaning on data to help black boys

Bancroft’s resignation after eight months dealt a blow to the hopeful but contentious merger between Ogden, a diverse but relatively affluent school with a large white population, and Jenner, which had served mostly black students from low-income households in the Cabrini Green area.

A challenging school climate and high turnover in leadership have been two of the biggest threats to the integration project at Ogden, which just wrapped up Year 1. A recent district survey characterized Ogden as “partially organized,” with weak ratings in effective leadership and collaborative teachers.  

While Ogden is an anomaly in some ways because of the merger, the council’s high-stakes pursuit of a strong leader offers a window into the stress and uncertainty that many schools weather during principal searches, and illustrates the challenge that principal turnover poses at the district. 

About 20% of principals who responded to a 2016 survey said they were considering a new job, and half of them who had at least a year of experience reported being less satisfied than they were the previous year. 

Research indicates that effective principals can drive school improvement and bolster student learning by fostering a strong school climate while engaging and empowering teachers to solve problems. But change takes time and can be hard to sustain once the catalyst has moved on to a new gig. 

Nearly half of all Chicago principals have been in their role for three years or less, and only two in five have been on the job longer than five years, according to the Chicago Public Education Fund.

Related: Top Chicago principals receive fellowships to hone leadership skills, boost school improvement plans

The council hopes to have the acting principal in place by August. But from there, things get more complicated, because the school district hasn’t concluded its disciplinary case against Ogden’s suspended principal Michael Beyer, one of the merger’s architects.

If he wins his case, he could return to the school, but if the district fires him instead, that clears the way for the council to open a principal search and eventually tender an offer to a new school leader — or keep whoever the district appoints as acting principal this summer.

On Monday, the school district appointed retired Alcott School principal David Domovic as “administrator in charge,” on a 100-day contract in lieu of hiring an acting principal, his second time in such a stint at Ogden. The principal search can’t get started in earnest until the district fills a vacancy in the next week for the school’s network chief, who will help compile a candidate pool for the council to review before the district chooses an acting principal. 

At the council meeting, Domovic pledged to ensure the school continues to operate, and to help oversee filling staff vacancies.

“My position isn’t to just sit here in a chair and vegetate,” he said.

“The turnover has been tough here.”

Suspended Ogden Principal Michael Beyer. (Adeshina Emmanuel)

Until recent years, Ogden had enjoyed stability in leadership — even if it was periodically tinged by drama. In 1996 Kenneth Staral took the helm, after his predecessor was shot to death by the husband of a teacher he had an affair with. Staral stayed for 17 years.

But in 2013, Staral was reassigned amid allegations that he charged $17,000 to his district credit card on school trips abroad, lavishing at famous restaurants and luxury hotels. Domovich then ran the school for a semester until January 2014, when the council hired Joshua Vanderjagt. 

Six months later, Vanderjagt wanted out following accusations that Jewish students had suffered anti-Semetic bullying and that the school hadn’t done enough to stop it. 

Related: Chicago schools equity chief promises new decision-making tool this summer

Shane Goldstein Smith was named interim principal over the summer, but left abruptly after less than a year, for a job at a New York charter school.

Michael Beyer replaced her in spring of 2015 and helped the council engineer the merger with Jenner. But last November, the district suspended him for allegedly falsifying attendance records, a charge he’s fighting via a lawsuit against the school district.

Last week, Beyer reflected on how challenging Ogden’s top job is.

“It’s too large and unwieldy,” with three campuses, 14 grade levels including  pre-K, and a diverse demographic, he said. “I’d say it’s one of the most challenging schools to manage in the district, and with the merger it’s probably been the most challenging school to manage this year.”

Local School Council members on Monday declined to discuss past scandals or speculate their impact on Ogden today. 

But council member Mary Schwartz said that Bancroft did a god job under pressure, stepping in  at a time when there was a lot of infighting within the integrated school community. “The turnover has been tough here,” she said. 

Related: Merged Chicago school searches for elusive balance in its ‘fractured’ community

Council member Simeon Henderson said that the Ogden school community can make a principal’s job hard. It’s a high-performing school with more affluent families than in most of the schools in the district, and very engaged parents.

“I think sometimes it can be a bit much, because there’s this high standard,” he said, “and so much comes from so many different ways, it can overwhelm you.”

But Schwartz emphasized, Bancroft pushed for a few changes at Ogden that should help whoever replaces her — including a business manager and a family communication specialist to share duties at the top.

Former Acting Principal Rebecca Bancroft (standing) leads a January LSC meeting at Ogden International School. (Adeshina Emmanuel)

Beyer suggested making the high school its own separate entity would ease the next principal’s burden.

“Having three campuses across pre-K to 12th grade is really setting anybody up for failure, I don’t care who it is,” said Beyer, who accepted a real estate broker job in June after the district suspended his pay.

About the next leader, Henderson said. “I think we have to find somebody who’s unbiased, who’s open minded, who has empathy, who really has the kids best interest at heart.”