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Headaches at Hancock

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Teachers, students, parents protest principal’s ouster

By Tim Hadac

Almost exactly two years ago, Hancock College Prep High School Principal Vanessa Puentes stood with then-Mayor Lori Lightfoot and other elected and appointed officials to celebrate the opening of the school’s new building at 5437 W. 64th Place.

Two years later, Hancock’s Local School Council voted 5-4 not to renew Puentes’ contract, sparking anger by some teachers, parents, students and community members.

But getting them to speak on the record about it is another thing.

Including several people who contacted this newspaper specifically to urge the paper to “do something” to reverse Puentes’ apparent ouster, almost none would speak on the record—for reasons they would not disclose.

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At the end of a school day last week, Hancock students paraded around the Clearing high school, chanting and waving signs to support Principal Vanessa Puentes. –Photo courtesy of Sixto Ambriz

One exception was State Rep. Angelica “Angie” Guerrero-Cuellar (D-22nd), whose district includes the school and who has been a vocal Puentes supporter.

“I’m very disappointed in the LSC’s action,” she said. “I don’t understand how [the LSC] could go from an 8-1 vote in favor of Principal Puentes [earlier in the summer] to where they’re at now. They need to provide a public explanation, which they have not yet done.”

Puentes “is an excellent principal who has grown into her role successfully,” Guerrero-Cuellar said. “I’ve heard nothing but good things about her from parents, teachers and students.”

The state lawmaker stopped short of speculating on the record why the LSC has apparently soured on Puentes, saying that the words “should come from [Puentes].”

An alumna of Hubbard High School, Guerrero-Cuellar describes herself as a proud product of the Chicago Public Schools who sends her children to CPS schools.

She noted that Hancock is the only selective-enrollment public high school in the area, and is in her opinion “a model school” she uses as a good example when advocating for more education resources.

Others weigh in

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Hancock teachers wore red and walked to school as a group on Aug. 21, as a show of both anger and solidarity in protest of the LSC’s vote not to renew the contract of Principal Vanessa Puentes. –Supplied photo

Also stepping up to talk openly was student leader Sixto Ambriz, a junior who transferred to Hancock from a charter school because he had heard encouraging things about Hancock and its offerings. Today he serves as student council vice president, as well as vice president of the culinary arts club. He also works on the yearbook.

Ambriz praised Puentes for her leadership that resulted in Hancock earning a coveted Blue Ribbon designation from the U.S. Department of Education.

Like Guerrero-Cuellar, Ambriz is confused by and dissatisfied with the LSC action not to renew Puentes’ contract. He said he suspects the action may be driven not by dissatisfaction with Puentes’ performance, but by an LSC clique that may be pushing its own candidate for principal.

Ambriz also noted that the LSC has a vacancy to be filled by a Hancock parent, but chose at this month’s meeting not to fill that vacancy despite having at least one qualified applicant. He said he suspects that the LSC majority feared that a new member would vote to renew Puentes’ contract.

He was one of what was said to be a large majority of Hancock students who walked out of first-period classes on Monday, chanting their support of Puentes up and down the school’s hallways. He also planned to be part of a student protest Tuesday afternoon.

Also weighing in was Joanna Baxter, the mother of a Hancock sophomore.

Under Puentes’ leadership, the school functions like a “well-oiled machine, which is why [Puentes] has the overwhelming support of the faculty, students and parents,” Baxter said.

Like Ambriz, she suspects the LSC action is driven by an undisclosed plan to push another candidate for principal. And she criticized the LSC for not filling its parent vacancy.

“This whole thing is crazy, for lack of a better word,” Baxter said.

In response to a request for comment from Chicago Public Schools, a CPS spokesman who declined to give her name on the record said, “Chicago Public Schools takes the concerns of our students, families and school community seriously and we are committed to working with them and our school leaders and Local School Councils to ensure that our students have dedicated educators and staff in their schools from day one of the new school year. As a District, we will continue to work with our LSC members as they make final decisions about principal selection. CPS leadership is committed to ensuring that every school has a dedicated school leader in place and that any change in school leadership does not negatively impact teaching and learning in our classrooms.”

The spokesman would not say on the record what the next steps are for Hancock.

If Puentes’ dismissal as principal sticks, it remains to be seen if she will step down immediately or stay until January, as Guerrero-Cuellar said she could. Even if the LSC reverses course and renews her contract, their action “has caused a disruption that is concerning and unnecessary,” Guerrero-Cuellar said.

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