CHICAGO—The Chicago Board of Education is investigating the white principal of a majority-Hispanic elementary school over allegations of racial discrimination and abuse, just months after it awarded her performance.
Margaret Kouretsos, head principal of Florence Nightingale Elementary School, allegedly discriminated against Spanish speaking and immigrant families, among other complaints. Nightingale is nestled in Chicago’s Southwest side, near Brighton Park and Gage Park neighborhoods, and is attended by 98 percent Hispanic students.
This year, the board gave Kouretsos the status of an Independent Principal School. IPS is a status given only to “high-performing principals” who require “minimal oversight from the district,” in the words of Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s education platform.
However, parents and teachers detailed their complaints in a petition that has gathered more than 1,000 signatures, calling for her firing. They accuse her of calling teachers into her office to be screamed at, before leaving in tears. Others said they were punished for speaking in Spanish in the classrooms, many of which are composed of English language learners. Parents describe instances of fights over parking with the principal that turn into Kouretsos threatening to pull students from Nightingale or prevent them from getting a spot at the school.
Maria Estrada, one of the Nightingale parents who spoke at a Sept. 27 school-board meeting, said she is disgusted by her experience with Kouretsos.
“I have been fortunate to say I was born in Mexico but am fortunate enough to have been raised in the Brighton Park area and am proud to say my daughter now attends Nightingale,” Estrada said. “In May 2016, [Kouretsos] pulled me one morning to tell me that she was ashamed that all the parents like myself were a problem to her. She went on to saying that she liked first generation parents that did not cause any problems and never complained about anything, referring to people like my mother, and I took that very personal and offensive.”
Nearly 46 percent of all currently enrolled Nightingale students have limited English skills. One former student, David Cardenas, wrote she should be fired because “she doesn’t respect parents that can’t talk fluent English, which is discrimination and disgraceful.”
Maria Moreno, a Nightingale teacher who worked with Kouretsos, said she witnessed Kouretsos taking advantage of parents who do not speak English well.
“She yelled at a teacher for speaking Spanish in a classroom where students are still learning English and not yet proficient,” Moreno said in an interview. “To be yelled at for who you are, that is very discriminatory. There are conversations I’ve had with parents who said their child felt nervous about going to school because of what they observed. They see this adult screaming, and it’s frightening for them.”
Moreno taught at Nightingale for seven years, but said she quit in 2011 because of the way Kouretsos treated her and the families at the school.
Kouretsos said she had no on comment when asked about the allegations. A Chicago Public Schools spokesperson said they “take these allegations very seriously, and a thorough review of the situation is underway.”
The Nightingale community, however, has seen improvements in numbers while experiencing the “hell” of discrimination and verbal abuse, petitioners wrote.
Aleysa Gomez said after years as a parent of students at Nightingale, she is angry at Kouretsos’ behavior and has suffered threats and intimidation from Kouretsos for voicing her concerns.
“I feel frustration to see how many of our teachers who have been the best years of their life to the school have been forced to depart because of the principal. I personally have gone through something similar experience as the teachers,” Gomez said, speaking through a translator. “You must always be prepared for what she might invent next, for what motive will we go to the office again? Most likely, you will come out crying and frustrated and not been able to defend yourself. It seems she takes pleasure in making you feel bad and humiliated.”
Complaints about Kouretsos as principal have been surfacing for years. In 2016, former Nightingale teacher Christine Brown filed a complaint against Kouretsos saying she intentionally caused her emotional distress by not granting her necessary medical leave as state law requires and that she tried to commit suicide “as a direct result of work related stress and the abusive treatment of Kouretsos,” the complaint reads. The complaint was partially dismissed.
Parents and teachers will discuss Kouretsos at the next Local School Council meeting, and organizers will bring the petition to the Board’s attention again in hopes that the board will remove Kouretsos as principal.