From The Beverly ReviewDated November 21, 2007Vol. 103 No. 26
Discontent voiced at Vick LSC
by Patrick Thomas
For the second time in six months, discontent swirled around the Barbara Vick Early Childhood Center over the handling of a teacher.
At a Nov. 13 Local School Council meeting at Barbara Vick, 2554 W. 113th St., relatives, parents of students and colleagues spoke in defense of Mary Fitzgibbons and expressed their outrage at Principal Catherine Lawton.
Fitzgibbons said Lawton handed her a notice for a disciplinary hearing, charging her with removing confidential records from the school and copying the records at another location.
So offended by the allegations, Fitzgibbons took a sick leave nearly a month ago and has not returned to the classroom.
Fitzgibbons, a former Beverly resident and teacher in the Chicago Public Schools for 17 years, did not attend the meeting, but in a statement read by her husband Edward Fitzgibbons, she said she has received nothing less than superior teacher ratings and has never been accused of any wrongdoing.
"Frankly, I am outraged by these allegations. It is all hearsay," Fitzgibbons said in the letter. "Saying I am upset is an understatement. I am livid. This is a terrible abuse of power."
Fitzgibbons called on the LSC to question the leadership of Lawton, who is also a member of the LSC.
"As a governing body, you have to ask yourself how long are you going to continue to let this happen?" Fitzgibbons said. "Is this really the type of leadership we expect for the children?"
Although she said she could not comment on specific teachers, Lawton denied having put any Barbara Vick faculty member through a disciplinary hearing.
"There has not been one teacher who has gone through the discipline process this year," Lawton said.
That process would entail Lawton meeting with a teacher and union representative to discuss any charges and then allowing them to respond. Only then would there be a decision to initiate any sort of penalty, Lawton said.
Supporters of Fitzgibbons said this latest fallout comes as a result of the dismissal of popular special-needs teacher Amy Hughes last-spring. Lawton said that Hughes was not retained because of a difference in teaching philosophies. When she was criticized for her handling of the situation, Lawton did not receive support in public from Fitzgibbons at the next LSC meeting, which was heavily attended by other teachers from the school.
Fitzgibbons' supporters feel that lack of support cost her the respect of Lawton.
Asked to comment about that accusation, Lawton declined.
"I have no reaction to that out of the respect for the families of Barbara Vick," she said.
Fitzgibbons, 56, teaches primarily children with special needs such as autism and other developmental disabilities.
Fitzgibbons' family members and parents of her pupils criticized Lawton's lack of support for teachers in special-needs classrooms, saying they lack sufficient credentials to teach special-needs students and do not receive the proper support such as teaching aides.
But Lawton said that all teachers are properly certified, and it is up to the teachers to ask for assistance in the classrooms if they feel they need it. The availability of aides also depends on the needs of the children, she said.
"Everyone who has been hired in the building is qualified to teach at Barbara Vick," Lawton said.
The teachers 'have all qualified for early childhood certificates, and some have taken extra course work and received a special-education endorsement, Lawton said. Barbara Vick, which opened in 1999, serves 225 children ages 3 to 5, and about 40 percent have special needs. The children are taught in blended classrooms so that they interact with children with varying abilities. There are 14 certified teachers, and there are a similar amount of educational support personnel, Lawton said.
At the meeting, several family members, parents of students and former colleagues praised the dedicated teaching of Fitzgibbons.
One woman talked about how her son, diagnosed with apraxia and not possessing the language abilities of most kids, was given the ability to inform his parents of his day through Fitzgibbons' written documentation. Each day, the boy would bring home a binder with papers outlining his day, until the school administration eliminated the binders in 2005.
But Fitzgibbons continued to write so she could relay the boy's daily experiences in class with his family at -home.
"Mary Fitzgibbons is a consummate professional," the woman said. "She is a teacher with impeccable moral character and is a strong advocate of children with special needs. The Chicago Public Schools needs more teachers like Mary Fitzgibbons."
Fitzgibbons' family said the accusations will tarnish her record as a teacher and hurt her chances for future employment. They feel Lawton should be punished for what they described as an abusive relationship with the teachers.
"A leader in my opinion is one that supports teachers and encourages them to be better teachers, because this is what builds a strong community," said Fitzgibbons' daughter Caitlin Fitzgibbons. "Ms. Lawton does not abide by this philosophy because she does not have ·the capacity for leadership. She operates by intimidation and instilling fear in her staff. And most importantly, she shows no compassion for the children and families of Barbara Vick. Don't the children deserve better?"
Because she works at a specialty school, Lawton's contract is renewed by the Board of Education, in contrast to most elementary and high schools where the principal contracts are handled by the LSC.
Other speakers at the LSC meeting criticized the school's handling of children with special needs and teachers like Hughes and Fitzgibbons who are brave enough to speak out against the status quo or challenge Lawton's authority.
"I am concerned as a member of this community that the reputation of Barbara Vick is suffering because of Cathy Lawton's truly disturbing actions," said Mary Hughes, a parent and former LSC member who co-founded the Beverly Area Parents for Special Education. "The children in the instruction classrooms are again being marginalized because of Cathy's personality problems."
At the LSC meeting, Hughes described Lawton's behavior as "unbalanced, erratic, manipulative and narcissistic."
"The greatest contribution you can make to Barbara Vick at this time, Cathy, is to tender your resignation."
Asked for a response to the request to resign, Lawton hesitated before declining and reiterated her stance that no teacher has gone through the full disciplinary process and all hired teachers were properly certified.
“I just want to set the record straight. I think some things were said at that meeting that needed to be corrected.”