Teachers at a Cleveland Charter School Organize a Union – for Some Really Big Reasons

UCP

Teacher Jacqueline Lehane with her first grade students.

*These kids deserve amazing teachers and teachers who want to be here and who have the support and resources they need—like we had when we were kids.*

For Jacqueline Lehane, it was the teacher demerit system at her Cleveland charter school that was the last straw. Teachers who’d been heard talking in the hallway, or whose students had been spotted with an untucked shirt, would be called out via an official email entitled *Quick Hits,* on which teachers, school and network administrators were copied. *It’s just public humiliation,* says Lehane, whose *hits* included having a messy classroom after her first graders completed an art project. To Lehane, this top-down shaming was a symbol of everything that was wrong with the school. *Once I even asked a dean, ‘do people who are higher up than you treat you the way you treat us?’*

If all you know about unions is that they are protectors of the status quo, responsible for everything that’s wrong with public education, I’m guessing you have no idea how hard it is to actually organize one. By the time Lehane and her colleagues at the University of Cleveland Preparatory School, part of the I CAN network, voted 18-4 to join the Ohio Federation of Teachers, the teachers had spent two years trying to form a union. Administrators responded, first by attempting to intimidate teachers into changing their minds, then firing the teachers who they’d identified as leading the effort. Seven teachers at the school were fired as punishment—such a clear and blatant act of retaliation that the National Labor Relations Board ordered I CAN to reinstate the teachers and give them full back pay. (I first wrote about their story here.)

‘This can’t be good’
Lehane started teaching at UCP in 2015. A week after the school year started, she found herself in front of 32 first graders, with no training. *I think it took me about an hour to figure out that there were some serious problems,* says Lehane. One of the first things she noticed was how high the teacher turnover rate was at the school. Teachers were constantly quitting, replaced by brand new teachers, some of whom weren’t even licensed to teach. Lehane was struck by how different this was from the public schools she’d attended growing up in suburban Cleveland. *My teachers were there for my three sisters and my brother, but no one ever stays at I CAN. I just remember thinking ‘this can’t be good,’* says Lehane.

I canWhen a group of teachers at the school approached Lehane about coming to a meeting to talk about organizing a union, she was in. At that first gathering, the teachers listed off their concerns and identified problems that they thought needed to be fixed. Like the sky-high turnover among teachers. And the fact there seemed to be no accountability for administrators. Work hours and expectations were outrageous, even though teachers lacked the most basic supports and resources to accomplish what was expected of them. *It was such a relief to hear that everyone was frustrated by the same things, and that we all wanted to fix them,* says Lehane.

Pushing back
Teachers at the school will soon begin negotiating their first contract. (Administrators have indicated that they’d like to see the process wrap up quickly.) The issues that Lehane and her colleagues were so concerned about will all be on the table—but what’s at stake here is bigger than just a contractual agreement between two parties. The teachers I talked to see their new union as a way to push back against a huge imbalance, not just between powerful administrators and a young staff that is constantly in transition, but between the promises that have been made to parents whose children attend schools like University of Cleveland Prep and what is actually being delivered.

The teachers I talked to see their new union as a way to push back against a huge imbalance, not just between powerful administrators and a young staff that is constantly in transition, but between the promises that have been made to parents whose children attend schools like University of Cleveland Prep and what is actually being delivered.

The promise gap
I-CAN-SCHOOLS-logo2Visit I CAN’s website and you’ll see exactly what the teachers are talking about. It’s a slick *college-prep production* in which neatly uniformed students receive individual attention from highly-qualified teachers who are *at the helm of what we do.* It’s Private School Education at a Public School Cost, where 100% of the students are being prepared for college by 100% of their teachers 100% of the time. But University of Cleveland Prep is rated by the state of Ohio as a *D* school, as are most of the schools in the I CAN network. You won’t find any mention of that on the I CAN website.

The Cleveland Prep teachers hope that having a union will do more than just protect them from being fired for making demands. They want to use their collective voice to try to make University of Cleveland Prep a better school, one that stands a chance of offering students and parents at least the possibility of realizing the dream that I CAN’s glossy marketing materials promise. *We want everyone to be held accountable,* says Lehane. *We want the teachers to stay. We want the kids to have some stability. These kids deserve amazing teachers and teachers who want to be here and who have the support and resources they need—like we had when we were kids.*

We want the teachers to stay. We want the kids to have some stability. These kids deserve amazing teachers and teachers who want to be here and who have the support and resources they need—like we had when we were kids.

Abi Haren was one of the teachers who was fired during the organizing campaign. She started working at the school as an unlicensed Spanish teacher mid-year in 2012, the third Spanish teacher I CAN would hire that year. When she’d talk to her parents, both traditional public school teachers, about what was happening at the school, they encouraged her to leave. *They were like ‘just get out of there,’* says Haren. But she stayed on and was one of the leaders of the organizing effort. When I Can was ordered to reinstate the fired teachers, Haren returned. She’s now a second grade teaching assistant as the school no longer offers Spanish. In between, she worked briefly at an Imagine charter school in Ohio before the state closed it down.

Her experiences have left her eager to understand the bigger picture that charter schools are part of, and to do her part to change it for the better. *I’m really frustrated by the injustice of it all,* says Haren. *The total lack of accountability, the false hope, the way so many of these schools prey on vulnerable communities. If you feel like you’re part of a system that’s doing more harm than good, you have to try to do something about it.*

Send comments, questions or story ideas to jennifer@haveyouheardblog.com

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23 Comments

  1. i can’t put my finger on the deep deep.. What? Irony?
    We already have public schools, we already have unions and they both are being shredded apart and replaced with privatized charter schools, only to… Fight for the very worker rights the forces behind charters are shredding?
    Huh?

  2. As a former employee of this school I’m extremely proud of the dedication the teachers have shown to stand up against the tyranny that is I CAN management. A failing school system which hires unlicensed teachers, unlicensed admin and a school who reduces their maintenance staff in the middle of the year must be stopped. I hope the union and the dedicated teachers can stand up, without fear of losing their job to do what’s best for kids. Unlike management and half of the I CAN admin who do not hold proper licensure, it’s the teachers which will turn the school around. Bullying, unjust firings, intimidation and lack of curriculum has to stop. They MUST stop taking advantage of the people in which they are there to serve. The founders posting on the social media accounts with their ‘bling’ is a disgrace and I’m excited for the teachers to now have a voice.

  3. I went to an orientation and they said the schools have As. I guess this not true. These people are taking advantage of me and my kids. I’m happy the teachers can stick together now and make the school better. I have been so mad at I CAN and will probably take my kids somewhere else but happy for the teachers.

  4. The push to unionize charter school teachers will only end with these schools shutting down. They are able to operate solely due to the lack of protections for staff and students. They fight unionization because their very survival depends on abusing staff and maintaining a revolving door of unqualified individuals who may have good intentions but lack the proper training and certification to seek employment elsewhere. This is a horrible experiment gone awry, an experiment that allows just about anyone to claim they are an educator. The emperor has no clothes.

  5. There are some charter schools that are very good. I am not employed by the “I Can” schools but I do work for a charter system. I am really proud of my school, our kids, and our hard-working administration. After I took a couple of years off to stay home with my children, public schools and the unions governing them made is impossible to get a job as an experienced teacher. My years of experience and my graduate work made me “untouchable ” by a public system which deemed me too expensive. I don’t want my company or my school to become part of a public debate. I have too much respect for my school… However, please do not judge all charter schools by the flaws of a few. All families should be given a choice as to what is best for their children. If all public schools were effective, we would not have charter schools in the first place.

    1. Most charter schools are a joke. Stealing public tax dollars to pay for their “management fees” yet performing worse than the public schools. It’s not the flaws of the few but rather the flaws of the many. Only a small fraction are equal or better than the public schools. Most are worse.

    2. I think it is difficult to say what “most” charter schools are like, just as it is difficult to say what “most” public schools are like.

      1. Actually we CAN say what “most” charter schools in Ohio are like, which is where this particular conversation happens to be set. Take 5 minutes and google “Ohio charter school performance” and see what you find. OK fine – I’ll share. Ohio charter schools are a disaster, and its urban charters are particularly bad. In fact the urban charters are SO bad that they have accomplished the unlikely feat of making the state’s long-suffering urban districts look better by comparison. http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/local/2016/02/01/charters-struggle-to-beat-scores-of-big-traditional-urban-schools.html So I think in this case it’s probably OK to refer to “most.”

        1. I must have missed it when Kurt restricted his statement to Ohio charters.

          I am not a huge fan of graduation rates as a measure of success because I don’t think anyone really knows what it means to graduate from high school. I once asked the folks over at Dr. Ravitch’s blog if every high school graduate was academically well prepared to be a freshman at a highly regarded traditional public high school like New Trier High School. The opinion was no.

          I think the advantages of the charter system come primarily because of their admission system. Because they do not have to accept all and every student from a geographically defined area, they do not have to standardize the approach to education they use within the building. Charter schools can be Waldorf schools, but traditional catchment public schools can not. Because charter students do not have to have a specific street address, charter schools also reduce the incentives for SES segregation in housing, while traditional catchment schools increase the incentives for SES segregation in housing.

          1. TE,

            “I once asked the folks over at Dr. Ravitch’s blog if every high school graduate was academically well prepared to be a freshman at a highly regarded traditional public high school like New Trier High School. The opinion was no.”

            Being one of those folks “over there” I would say that we realize that not all children (and that is what incoming high school freshman are) are at that point in time ready for high school at a selective institution (NTHS). Those of us who have taught in public high schools know and realize this, and we realize that it is silly to expect it, and work with ALL the students, not just a select few as the vast majority of charters do, to provide them with an education that will further their own wants, desires and needs.

          2. Duane,

            New Trier High School is not a selective institution. It is a traditional catchment based high school that enrolls all and only students who reside in its catchment area. I do think it would be silly to ask if all high school graduates were prepared to be freshman at selective high schools like Stuyvesant or Thomas Jefferson. That is why I picked a non-selective high school.

            It is not obvious to me that it is silly to worry that graduates of some high schools are academically more than four years behind graduates of students at other non-selective high schools. It also suggests to me that graduation rates, the measure of school quality in the linked to article about Ohio, do not tell an outsider very much about the education a student has received in a given school.

          3. Jeniffer,

            I am not sure why you did not allow my response to Duane’s post to be published, but I do think that you should correct the factual misstatement that is at the core of Duane’s comment. New Trier High School is NOT a selective high school, but a traditional catchment based high school that takes all and only students from the local community.

          4. Somehow it ended up in the trash. And I’m not sure what comment you’re referring to. I’m from Illinois so am quite familiar with New Trier. I better go look!

          5. Jenifer,

            I see it now. I am fairly used to bloggers blocking or deleting my comments (Peter over at Curmudgucation blocks about half of my comments. I hope the folks there realize that I do answer the questions that they ask about my comments, but Peter does not allow them to read my responses) so I assumed that was what happened here.

            Duane stated that

            “Being one of those folks “over there” I would say that we realize that not all children (and that is what incoming high school freshman are) are at that point in time ready for high school at a selective institution (NTHS)”

            I was actually talking about graduated seniors from one high school being ready to be freshman at other traditional high schools. Duane seems to think that New Tier is not a traditional high school.

          6. I rarely block comments but sometimes they end up in the trash as though I had willed them there! Note that in the first part of Duane’s comment he identifies NTHS as a traditional high school, then says it’s selective later on. Since I don’t know what he meant, I’ll ask him).

          7. Jenifer,

            The first section of his comment is a direct quote of my comment, so he was not identifying New Trier as a traditional school, I was. He may well believe New Trier to be a selective admissions high school.

            He is also confused because I was posting about a high school graduate (an adult in every way except alcohol consumption) being as well prepared as an eighth grader for any traditional high school, not all eighth graders being prepared for selective high schools.

          8. Note that my name is “Jennifer” with two “n’s”! You know that New Trier is in Illinois and not in Ohio, right? Just kidding 🙂 Not sure how we got from a Cleveland charter school to the top high school in my home state…

          9. Jennifer,

            Sorry about the spelling.

            Here is how this got on to New Trier.

            The evidence that Ohio charters are a disaster in your link is largely about differences in graduation rates across schools. I do not think differences in graduation rates tells anyone very much about the education going on in the school because of the effective differences in graduation standards across schools, even in the same state. I illustrated the point by reporting the considered opinion of veteran teachers that a student graduating from one high school, say Fenger Acadamy High School in Chicago, would not be well prepared to enter the ninth grade at New Trier High School, 35 miles away. Graduating, and not graduating, from those two high schools mean very different things.

            Graduating and not graduating from a charter in Ohio may mean something very different from graduating and not graduating from a traditional public school in Ohio. Without getting very very deep into the weeds, it is not really possible to tell.

        2. I should add that I agree virtual schools are probably a poor idea for most students (though I can certainly see their place in some of the isolated communities in my and other states), so closing those would, I think, be a good idea.

          It is important, however, that virtual classes be available so that schools outside very large metropolitan areas can come closer to offering a curriculum for all their students. Organizations like The Art of Problem Solving (https://www.artofproblemsolving.com/ ) provide high quality online courses and construct a community for students who are typically under served in K-12 schools. Granted the instructors at The Art of Problem Solving are not necessarily certified to teach K-12, but many do hold doctorates in mathematics and have the deep understanding of mathematics that their students need.

    3. I take issue with this statement: “If all public schools were effective, we would not have charter schools in the first place.”

      In 1992 the first charter opened in my home state of MN. Before that, we had all sorts of public schools that were very effective. I attended an open school housed within a traditional school. We also had a variety of options: Vo tech, summa tech, sobriety, etc… and the schools were far more integrated.

      Now we have an unaccountable shadow system that preys off our public system.

      1. I think charters open for a variety of reasons. The Walton Rural Life Center Charter School opened because the traditional catchment public school in Walton was going to be closed by the school district due to under enrollment in the small rural town of Walton. Reopening the school as a charter school allowed folks living outside the catchment area to send their children to this school and keep it open. The Community Roots Charter School in Brooklyn opened specifically to provide an integrated school in the nations most segregated public school district.

  6. I sent my kids to these ‘schools’. I visted one day and was pissed because my kid was one of 39 in a class. 39 kids. How will a teacher reach 39 kids in a class. I knew I had to put my kid back into Cleveland schools where the kids to teacher ratio was much smaller. I googled the founders of the school and seen pictures of them partying with their staff. Unprofessional. Take advantage of the black population for so long and we’ll shut you down.

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