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Last Chance High

This Outspoken Chicago Educator Is on a Mission to Save Public Schools

The former principal and current president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association is fighting inequality in the city's fraught public school systems.

by Kastalia Medrano
Aug 23 2017, 4:30pm

The latest season of Last Chance High is currently airing Tuesdays on VICELAND.

During his tenure at Chicago's James G. Blaine Elementary, Troy LaRaviere markedly increased his students' reading standards. He increased their math standards. He worked relentlessly to make advanced curricula accessible to all students -- disadvantaged students, students of color, students in low-income neighborhoods -- not just the affluent and white. As principal, he eventually made Blaine the No. 1-ranked neighborhood school in Chicago. And then, in April 2016, he was suspended.

LaRaviere didn't go to college initially; no one in his Chicago community considered it an attainable goal, or even really talked about it. After high school he joined the Navy, and after that he got a temp job as a secretary. He was making $10 per hour, living in his grandparents' basement, when his girlfriend gave him a copy of The Autobiography of Malcolm X.

"That book saved my life," LaRaviere told VICE Impact by phone. "It changed my whole perspective. I'd been so scared I couldn't measure up, that I would be that stereotypical failure, and I started asking myself what it was that had led me to believe that I didn't have any potential. And I thought maybe as a teacher I could change that [for a younger generation]."

He enrolled at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He bought a book called How To Get Straight As, got them, and then got a Master's degree. He promised himself that no kid who went through his classroom would leave it not knowing their potential the way he hadn't known his.

Fifty years earlier, LaRaviere's white mother had been forced to leave Chicago's West Side when, as a teenager, she became pregnant by a black man. LaRaviere felt a sense of purpose in returning to that community as an authority figure to educate students of color, to show them someone cared. He landed a job at Social Justice High School, where in his own words he "absolutely just killed it."

"People are intentionally underfunding special education. So I'm principal, pissing off these extremely powerful people just because I'm doing the right thing. We need an administration that wants what's best."

Within four years, he was promoted to Assistant Principal, and then earned his own principalship at Blaine Elementary. He set a goal of making Blaine a top-ranked school within six years. Yet while he undeniably led Blaine to excel, he found his biggest obstacles weren't internal, but external, in the form of what he saw as corruption and stonewalling from the Chicago Public School system.


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"We put our ear to the ground," he said. "We did focus groups. We did surveys. We found that with special education and special education resources, there are things that have to be considered into the budget, and they were scheming to keep that budget insufficient. It's illegal, but that's what they were doing."

Budget decisions can be appealed, but the same corrupt administration could simply delay and deny them; LaRaviere said 100 days could pass with no response. He and his colleagues also dug into which budget requests were approved and which were denied. He said schools with predominately white student populations received about 60 percent of what their administrators asked for. Predominantly Hispanic schools, 14 percent. Black schools, 9 percent.

"It was sickening," he said. "People are intentionally underfunding special education. So I'm principal, pissing off these extremely powerful people just because I'm doing the right thing. We need an administration that wants what's best."

Chicago has one of the most fraught public school systems in the country; donations and philanthropy won't be what solves these problems.

LaRaviere became a vocal critic of the CPS, and as his platform continued to expand, so did his level of influence. CPS suspended him, citing misuse of resources and engaging in political work during school hours; LaRaviere believes Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel personally targeted him to suppress his activism. He's not alone; Bernie Sanders spoke out in his defense, condemning Emanuel's "politically motivated retaliation because [LaRaviere] dared to stand up." LaRaviere himself is exploring a mayoral run though no official plans have been announced yet.

In August of 2016, LaRaviere published a no-holds-barred viral open letter titled "Dear Mayor Emanuel: I Resign My Position As Principal Of The #1 Rated Neighborhood School In Chicago," which as mic-dropping ways to quit your job go comes in second only to that JetBlue flight attendant who triggered his plane's emergency chute and slid to freedom whilst holding a beer.

Resigning meant LaRaviere forfeited his right to appeal the charges leveled against him, but around the time of his ousting from Blaine he was elected President of the state's Principals and Administrators Association. He believes the CPS so degraded that the only way he can affect real change is from the outside.

READ MORE: Former Gang Member Is Now the Coach of an Inner-City Boxing League

President Trump's proposed education budget would cut more than $10 billion from federal education programs. Money would be reallocated into charter schools, private school, and religious schools -- essentially, the antithesis of the equality LaRaviere has spent his career fighting to achieve. Chicago has one of the most fraught public school systems in the country; donations and philanthropy won't be what solves these problems. It's not just that Chicago school principals and administrators need more money or resources, it's that they need to be able to ensure those things actually get where they need to go.

"We have to build a movement with the capacity to make the elected officials do the right thing," LaRaviere said. "We're the residents, and we need to get -- we're going to get -- the politicians we deserve."

Learn more about the issues and how to help the individuals and organizations featured in the VICELAND series Last Chance High.

You can get updates from LaRaviere about his work through his blog , or tweet him @TroyLaRaviere. Got a question or story tip? Tweet @VICEImpact.

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