*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.
When 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.
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
Visit 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.*
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