Outspoken Principal Pollett retires from Montefiore School
August 7, 2010

By Patrick Butler

Mary Ann Pollett may have left after 17 years as principal of Montefiore Special School, 1310 S. Ashland Ave., but she does not want the focus to be on her.

“Please remember to focus on the special school known as Montefiore,” she asked. “Personalities fade. It’s the institution and its mission that need to be highlighted.”

If anyone deserves mention, she said, it is Jane Addams of Hull House, Jesse Binford of the Juvenile Protective Association, and other founders of what Pollett describes as the “first in the country” day school program to help “prevent juvenile delinquency.”

Pollett would have you believe she is just a footnote, but she ranks with those founders in helping create Montefiore’s legacy.

She officially ends a 42-year career that included everything from teaching government and economics at Tinley Park High School to spending a year-and-a-half in Europe, Turkey, India, Nepal, and Afghanistan just before the Soviet army invaded. A highlight of that trip was visiting the 1,000-year-old Buddhist statues blown up by the Taliban in Afghanistan only months before the Taliban itself was toppled from power.

“While I did ride camels now and then, I rode mostly buses,” laughed Pollett, who hopes Afghanistan “stabilizes” enough so she can go back for another visit someday.

Fighting words

Concerning Montefiore, she does have advice for her successor, Julious T. Lawson.

“You’ll have to fight for this school, have a clear vision of what you want, and hold the course,” Pollett said. “But do not count on getting a lot of help. Even when you fight, you may not always win.”

Pollett is known for telling it as she sees it at news conferences, to the City Council, and even to the Board of Education.

She asserts that Montefiore’s mission remains as important today as it was when the school began in 1929, “maybe more so, given the escalating gang violence, institutional racism, a caste system,” and “untreated psychiatric disorders” that “make our young men fodder for the prison system.”

A case in point, she said, happened in fall 1988, right at Montefiore’s front door, “when Clemie Henderson, a Vietnam vet whose mom lived across the street, went on a shooting rampage and killed two people at Comet Auto and mortally wounded Arthur Baker, [the school’s building engineer], who came in to warn my predecessor Bernie Karline about a gunman on the loose,” Pollett said.

“I’m not justifying what [Henderson] did, but he needed to get treatment. There are a lot of young men of color who have no option but recidivism. They not only don’t get the help they need, they can’t get jobs because of their felonious status. They should put resources in places like this, but they put people in power who don’t give a damn about the population here,” she said.

Which is all the more reason Chicago cannot afford to lose Montefiore, she insisted.

Undermining Montefiore?

Testifying before a Chicago City Council Committee on Education and Child Development meeting, Pollett accused the public schools’ Office of Specialized Services — which controls the number of students
referred to Montefiore — of undermining Montefiore’s program despite the office’s repeated protestations that “we have no plans to close Montefiore.”

Nevertheless, she said, the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) plans to open six private “therapeutic” schools to serve the same function as Montefiore, even as fewer and fewer students are being sent to Montefiore. In addition, Pollett said, Montefiore’s faculty has dropped from 38 to 17 over the past dozen years, and this year only 76 students ages ten through 15 have been referred to Montefiore at a time when there should be about 120.

What really bothers Pollett is to hear CPS powers-that-be justify cuts by saying Montefiore has more teachers than it needs.

“We’re not overstaffed, we’re under-enrolled,” she said. At least one CPS official who understood that was the late School Board President Michael Scott, said Pollett. “Last year he visited us twice and pulled planned cuts in our program off the table,” she said, adding that Scott could see the value of a place like Montefiore, which was one of 30 schools citywide to win grants from both the Polk Brothers Foundation for an entrepreneurial training program and the Oppenheimer Fund for student architectural projects.

Pollett’s plans for the immediate future include working on her house, which she estimates could take eight months to a year, then going into the Peace Corps “while I still can,” she laughed. “I want to go somewhere, Africa or Asia, where I can fulfill that dream of John F. Kennedy,” said Pollett. who assumes she will be assigned to some kind of teaching job. “But,” she added, “I can also hammer a nail pretty good.”

In the meantime, she said, “I’m going to be fighting alongside Montefiore’s administration, parents and students.”

After retirement, “I’ll be available,” Pollett asserted. “I will not interfere with the new principal, but if I’m asked to help in any way I’ll be glad to do that.”

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