Another Marshall Plan

Ron Huberman didn't bother to phone Olympic gold medalist and WNBA superstar Cappie Pondexter last spring before firing the entire faculty at Marshall High School. Had the former CPS CEO made that call, he surely would have heard about Tony Skokna, Pondexter's old history teacher.

The sharp-shooting Pondexter, a 2001 Marshall graduate, told me that there were "a few teachers [at Marshall] who left a lasting impression" on her, and Skokna was one of them. Pondexter acknowledged that Marshall was "not known for its academics," but she said Skokna was "a teacher who really cared and actually wanted to help kids learn."

Caring, however, has never been a subject on any CPS standardized test, so the 56-year-old Skokna was handed a pink slip at the end of the 2009-10 school year -- his 17 years at Marshall presumably viewed by Huberman and his brain trust as part of the school's problem.

Could Huberman have been right? After all, Pondexter left Marshall ten years ago. What if Skokna had spent the last decade morphing into one of those fat-and-happy union members the Chicago Tribune editorial board so frequently warns us about? What if this father of eight (with three daughters still in grade school) who coached high school baseball in Garfield Park and painted houses for extra income during the summer was just phoning it in at Marshall while waiting for his pension to vest?

I decided to get to the bottom of things by checking in with Shantrell Sutton, who is currently a senior at Marshall. Sutton is a member of the National Honor Society, and she's been accepted to DePaul University, the University of Illinois at Chicago, and several other colleges. She, too, had been one of Skokna's students.

Sutton told me she "felt horrible" when she heard Skokna was fired, explaining that "a lot of us kids trusted him." She said Skokna had "a special way of teaching" and "he loved us -- you can tell." Sutton hopes that Skokna will find a way to come to her graduation. "He was [at Marshall] a long time," she said. "He's family."

When I sat down with Skokna last week to talk with him over pizza about his former students and his years at Marshall, it didn't take me long to understand what Pondexter and Sutton saw in him. The man was passionate about his students. He misses them. He misses teaching.

Huberman gutted Marshall last year as part of another high-stakes CPS "turnaround." After firing the old guard, CPS officials hand-picked the school's new faculty to ensure that this "turnaround" will be more successful than Arne Duncan's "transformation" of Marshall back in 2007-08. And although this "turnaround" faculty has yet to complete its first year, it already appears there will be more blood-letting at the school in the days ahead.

A CPS spokesman confirmed last week that Marshall's principal has decided not to renew the contracts of 10 of the school's 42 probationary appointed teachers ("PATs"). The PATs are non-tenured teachers in their first, second, or third year of teaching for CPS.

This is not an insignificant purge. As of June 3, 2011, Marshall's website identifies only 59 individuals who are currently teaching classes at the school. Based on the information received from CPS, it appears that the 42 PATs made up the majority of the school's 2010-11 "turnaround" faculty.

It does make you wonder whether CPS wanted to get rid of Skokna or the veteran teacher's $75,000 salary. Let's be honest. If Skokna really was part of the problem at Marshall, why did CPS bring him back to the school as a substitute teacher for three months during the first "turnaround" year?

Sutton, the Marshall senior, is highly skeptical of the "turnaround." She said that to the extent there are any improvements at her school, "it's not because of the new teachers, it's mostly because the [student] misfits are being pushed out."

As for Skokna, he spent the 2010-11 year working as a substitute teacher, but CPS has now pushed him out for good, "honorably terminating" his employment as of June 22, 2011 (though generously extending his benefits through June 30). The district cut him loose just two years shy of the 20 years he needs to qualify for his pension.