Chicago Public Schools leaders and elected officials gathered seven months ago to celebrate the renaming of a Lakeview elementary school to honor the abolitionist Harriet Tubman. The change was heralded as a model of what a school could accomplish when it’s united.
Now, just weeks into the new school year, the Tubman Elementary community appears to be divided. Enrollment is down about 100 students compared with the previous year. Tubman’s principal, meanwhile, is under fire for her handling of student safety complaints. About three months ago, Tubman’s Local School Council asked CPS CEO Pedro Martinez to begin dismissal proceedings against Principal Kimberly Gibson — but there has been no resolution, pending various CPS investigations.
At a virtual LSC meeting Wednesday, some parents called for more transparency around the safety allegations and the steps CPS says it is taking to improve the culture of the school.
“It is really hard to be a Tubman parent right now,” parent Dana Carman said at the LSC meeting, which lasted nearly four hours. “It feels like we’ve been abandoned. It feels like the (CPS) network, like the district, is not putting any effort or resources into us. It doesn’t feel like this remedial support that has been mentioned multiple times is being offered or given or guided.”
Tubman Elementary — which boasts an International Baccalaureate curriculum — used to be known as Louis Agassiz Elementary. The school officially ditched the name of the racist Swiss American biologist with a March 2021 Chicago Board of Education vote.
The community celebrated a new school sign in February, serving as inspiration for other CPS schools attempting to scrap their racist or misogynistic namesakes, especially following the 2020 Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.
At Tubman, the goodwill generated by the name change didn’t last long. There were 393 students enrolled this past school year, according to CPS data captured on the 20th day. Gibson told the LSC that 294 students were enrolled as of Tuesday. At least a dozen staff members also left.
Near the end of the last school year, Tubman staff members wrote a letter to the LSC outlining their concerns, which include lack of leadership regarding “numerous” staff complaints about an employee, and lack of “follow through” on student complaints.
“Those of us that are staying are disheartened, exhausted and fearful of another year of the same issues with little accountability or oversight,” reads the undated letter signed by “Tubman Staff” and obtained by the Tribune. “We are also deeply concerned about bringing into this fractured community new staff who are unaware of the challenges we face under this leader.”
Gibson did not respond to a Tribune request for comment. Before she came to Tubman, Gibson was an administrator at Audubon Elementary in Roscoe Village. The Tubman LSC voted to award Gibson a four-year principal contract starting in August 2021. Less than a year later, the council wanted her out.
LSC members have carefully avoided publicly disclosing details of safety complaints at council meetings, and many did not respond to a Tribune request for comment. At a May meeting, an LSC representative said Gibson had not notified the CPS Office of Student Protections and Title IX of “multiple” safety complaints she had reportedly received. The office was allegedly informed by a parent and clinician instead. Gibson said she follows all proper reporting procedures to ensure everyone’s safety.
On June 30, at a special LSC meeting, parent representative Laurie Viets lamented the lack of communication to parents and the LSC about the allegations that have rocked Tubman.
“Our hands are so incredibly, frustratingly tied. We have all of these issues that we can’t tell you about because we have all this information. I, personally, have information because I’m one of the people who filed one of those claims,” Viets said, adding that she was angry with Gibson, who did not attend that meeting. Viets recently declined to comment to the Tribune.
At the June 30 meeting, the LSC unanimously voted to request Martinez begin dismissal proceedings. He had 45 days to respond. On Aug. 29, Martinez sent a letter to the Tubman LSC.
“There are pending investigations regarding the principal’s conduct at the Office of Inspector General, the Office of Student Protections and Title IX and the Law Department,” Martinez wrote. “While those offices are diligently attempting to bring these investigations to a conclusion, they have not yet concluded that work. Consequently, I will not commence dismissal proceedings at this time.”
It’s unclear when the investigations will be complete or when Martinez will make his final decision. CPS said in a statement that it does not comment on individual personnel matters. “CPS is committed to ensuring students have access to a safe learning environment, and we take seriously any allegation of inappropriate employee conduct,” the district’s statement reads.
Parent Julia Copeland criticized Martinez’s letter as being too vague when she addressed the LSC on Wednesday.
“What were the serious allegations? If there are safety allegations at our school, aren’t we as parents entitled to know what these safety allegations are?” Copeland said. “Because if there is a safety issue, we should be informed and make decisions that we feel are right for our family.”
Copeland also requested details about Martinez promises of “a series of interim remedial steps” and “supportive resources” to “help improve the culture and climate at the school.”
Gibson said diversity, equity and inclusion coaching began for administrators this week. A retired principal partner joined the Tubman community Wednesday, Gibson said. She pledged additional support as well.
“On professional development, it’s going to focus on team building, building relationships and helping us all have a sense of belonging,” Gibson said. “We are trying to create a Tubman where administration, staff, students and families all feel safe, respected and valued. And with the support of us working together as a team, I know that we can move the school forward.”
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CPS said Gibson and her network chief and team are engaging in weekly check-ins, and the district has provided two network instructional support leaders to Tubman. “We look forward to continuing to support the Tubman community and will provide timely updates on any decisions impacting staff, students and families,” CPS said in its statement.
LSC chairperson Ileana Inserni told the Tribune it’s unfortunate the school year began with no final decision from Martinez. “I think we’re all hopeful in terms of the future, moving forward, knowing that we will still be an amazing school and will get even better,” she said.
If Gibson stays at Tubman, she may face more pushback from the LSC. The new council was seated in July, with three new parent representatives joining Wednesday to fill vacancies — including a woman who voted to request Gibson’s removal as part of the last LSC.
Gibson’s pick for parent rep was not selected Wednesday by the rest of the council. But she certainly has her supporters. Tubman parent Diamond Bogard lavished praise on her at Wednesday’s LSC meeting.
“I was honestly disheartened to hear that there were efforts taking place to rescind her principalship appointment. From the onset of her principalship, her outreach has always been informative, supportive and equity-based, which is in alignment with the district,” said Bogard, who works at a CPS high school on the West Side. “She is one of the most devoted, hard-working, passionate leaders that I know.”
Tubman special education classroom assistant Patricia Creer submitted a written statement during the LSC meeting. “I want to send out my appreciation for the hard work and efforts of Principal Gibson and Vice Principal (Bernadette) Moore,” Creer wrote. “It is not easy to manage such a load during this time of transition from a pandemic. I have subbed at many schools before taking my permanent position with Tubman, and I am impressed by both of their dedication and passion.”
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