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Peoria’s teachers’ union head and District 150 officials are at odds over morale, alternative schooling

Jeff Smudde

As Peoria Public Schools teachers continue to work through a second academic year impacted by COVID-19, the head of the Peoria Federation of Teachers is at odds with District 150 administrators.

Jeff Adkins-Dutro says a recent bargaining survey of union members shows the current school year has been more difficult than the first year of working amid COVID-19, and that morale among teachers is close to an all-time low.

“You're coming out of a pandemic where students were learning online, which is less than ideal. So, a lot of students are going to be behind anyway,” said Adkins-Dutro. “But the administration is completely out of touch with the teachers, and they keep piling more and more and more on the teachers. So the teachers are now pretty much at their breaking point.

“In some districts, the administration, they realize this is a really tough time for teachers and they're giving the teachers more time. In our district, it's quite the opposite; they just keep piling on more and more and more programs and work, and they don't realize what it's doing to the teachers.”

While PPS Superintendent Dr. Sharon Kherat acknowledges the current teaching challenges, she disputes suggestions of morale problems.

“Yes, it has been a difficult year, and I would say Peoria Public Schools have handled it very, very well,” said Kherat. “I meet with my principals once a month and I take a temperature: ‘If you had to classify your building’s morale as satisfactory, excellent or needs improvement’ — four buildings said morale is at an excellent level and everybody else said it's at a satisfactory level.

“The principals are right there in the buildings with the teachers, so they know their buildings. … I trust my principals, and I'm in those buildings and I'm in the classrooms. So, when I talk about there is no room for unconstructive rumors, I really mean that.”

Adkins-Dutro said some of the teachers’ stress is coming from a rise in student behavioral problems and disciplinary issues.

“As a teacher nowadays, you can teach all day and within that day, you can be cussed out, you could have an observation from an administrator, you could have a faculty meeting after school, you could have lesson plans to do that night — all on the same day, and more than one day a week,” said Adkins-Dutro, adding the union intends to include student discipline in upcoming contract negotiations.

“So that's what we're hearing a lot of as far as conditions go. You'll hear the administration talk a lot about social and emotional services within our district that are supposed to help students behave better socially. But I've come to the conclusion that those are all fake; it's just something the district talks about. It's a façade: you open the door, you walk out into the desert, there's nothing there.”

But that’s a claim District 150 Social Emotional Learning Director Derrick Booth vehemently denies.

“This is completely false. I mean, it's just a completely false narrative, 100% false,” said Booth. “Right here at the Wraparound Center, there's OSF Strive — the trauma recovery program where there's therapists and caseworkers. Their fiscal year was October to October, so in the last fiscal year they had over 300 clients that they worked with for trauma recovery services.

“Family Core provide services here. They have office space here daily, and they have a respite program. That's where students come that are not having success in their traditional school environment, and the respite is a short-term stay. It's not a long-term placement, or they are not enrolled here, but they can step three days. Any day of the week, there's 3-10 students in the room, sometimes even more; their capacity during COVID is 15, and only a few days they've reached that capacity.”

Booth said other programs offered include a food pantry, substance abuse and mental health counseling, legal services, and job training.

“All of that takes place right here at the Wraparound Center, so that comment is just so far from any truth at all, to be honest with you, and it's unfortunate,” said Booth. “The overall goal of Social Emotional Learning is to establish relationships with students and provide them with the support services and resources that they need. We have done that, and continue to do that in a number of ways.”

Recently released State of Illinois public school report card figures show PPS with a 2021 chronic truancy rate of 54.6% and chronic absenteeism at 43.4%. Adkins-Dutro said that poses a problem as the district adheres to grade-level social promotion before high school.

“The district will say retention doesn't work, and we'll say, ‘You're right, retention doesn't work, but social promotion doesn't work either,” said Adkins-Dutro. “So when you're talking about absenteeism, it gets exacerbated when students are moved on and they haven't gotten, say, the fifth-grade skills they need in order to be successful in sixth grade.”

He said better alternative schooling options would help address the issue.

“The current superintendent has decimated the alternative schooling we did have,” Adkins-Dutro claimed. “Woodruff had, I believe, three or four different programs there that — poof — are gone. They have hired an outside entity to take on 50 elementary school students who are not being successful in the traditional setting.

“But we need real alternative schools with high-quality master teachers at all levels, and we need summer school. In addition to that, ironically, the district has gone in the opposite direction and they've gotten rid of almost all of that.”

But Kherat said Adkins-Dutro’s allegation is not accurate.

“We have more alternative programming and resources than ever before for our students. Almost all of it has been implemented since I came on board in 2015,” said Kherat. “For example, the number of options for alternative programming— we had zero for primary (school). There were no alternative options for primary. Now we have four alternative options for students in primary buildings.

“We have seven alternative options for students in middle school age, and then there are 10 alternatives, including the union president works in one of those alternative buildings. So tell me, I can guarantee you that you will not find another school district in the state of Illinois where you have all of these alternative options — 21 alternative options for individuals who just need a different setting in a different environment.”

Adkins-Dutro said improving teacher morale would lead to students getting a better education. The contract bargaining session begins in March.

Contact Joe at jdeacon@ilstu.edu.