First Person

Voices: A cautionary charter school tale

Nick Avila, chief operating officer at the PODER Academy, says critics unfairly targeted the charter school and it deserves another chance in Westminster. 

In August of 2007, Marcos Martinez opened a charter school in the Adams 50 School District that served a community of children who were primarily lower-income and Latino.

Students playing chess at PODER Academy.

The school had a unique curriculum that focused on tennis and chess, in addition to the other core academic areas like reading, writing and math. Students would attend an extended day from 8:30 a.m. until 5 p.m. and were given an hour of homework every day. Parents were required to sign off on their child’s homework and students would lose privileges if homework was not complete, regardless of the reason.

The Ricardo Flóres Magon Academy became a model in the community as one of the few to achieve an A- on a statewide report card system and was placed in the top 8 percent of schools based on its standardized test scores. The chess team won several trophies that were displayed in a glass case by the school’s entrance, along with a variety of press clippings that told stories about defying the odds.

I decided to accept a job at the school managing a unique program where students received tennis lessons year-round as part of their school day. They would not only become some of the best tennis players in the state but would also benefit academically from the self-reliance and focus they developed in the process.

School embroiled in controversy

In the spring of 2012, a showdown would ignite that would turn the school upside down. A group of parents had grown frustrated with Martinez and began circulating a petition outside of the school doors outlining complaints about how children were being bullied by abusive teachers and how the school was overly militant.

The situation came to a boil when a story appeared in Westword as told through the eyes of employees who had been fired over the past five years. The former employees gave accounts of how they were mistreated and exploited by a tyrannical leader who promoted an environment of fear. Soon the school was engulfed in a flood of accusations that grew increasingly sensational as time went on.

Martinez drew criticism for being unapologetic when it came to firing teachers he felt were uncooperative or incapable of achieving results and for holding students back in grade who were falling behind academically. He had a stubborn management style and was dismissive of criticism from parents who didn’t agree with the school’s policies.

The ensuing firestorm would eventually prompt the school’s Board of Trustees to take action. In a drastic and questionable move midway through the school year, they put Martinez and two other staff on leave until they were able to sort out the situation. This led to a hostile conflict between parent groups that spilled into the school hallways forcing the Board of Trustees to hire security guards.

Meanwhile, the wheels had come off inside the school, which was now severely short-staffed and reduced to utter confusion. The remaining staff struggled to keep things operating as communication broke down amongst the teachers who were now divided. The once structured student culture in the school was coming apart.

The nasty and divisive ordeal overshadowed much of the work we were doing inside of the school. Neither Martinez nor the two other employees placed on leave were given a chance to respond to the accusations and Martinez would eventually part ways with the school he created.

Support for the school overshadowed

Many questions remain that were never resolved. Questions like, why would more than 300 parents send their children to a school if it wasn’t in their best interest? Why would teachers and staff continue to work at a school that was abusive and dysfunctional? At least 75 percent of the students were returning students, some of whom had been there since the school doors opened. A majority of the faculty and staff had been there for three years or more. The situation inside the school was nowhere near as bad as the Westword article made it seem, but the fallout had already run its course.

The school’s pattern of high test scores that continued even after Martinez resigned were subject to ongoing suggestions of fraud, despite the fact that the Charter School Institute was present to monitor testing on at least two separate occasions and that student scores matched those on other similar tests taken quarterly.

Nevertheless, Martinez was determined to pick up the pieces and try again about 100 miles up north in Cheyenne, Wyo. The town’s school board approved his application to open the district’s first charter school and I signed on once again, this time in a management capacity. We both saw an opportunity to learn from the mistakes that were made the first time in order to build something even stronger.

PODER Academy opened its doors in the fall of 2012 and is now in full operation with more than 100 students in grades kindergarten through third. The school operates on the same model that brought success in Westminster. We recently submitted a proposal to the Adams 50 School Board to open another location in Westminster with more than 200 applications from parents, many of whom were familiar faces from the school we left behind. Yet the school board dismissed our application because of an association with the Magon Academy, along with the same mountain of unproven allegations that followed Martinez.

We are now considering an appeal to the Colorado State Board of Education.

While the next chapter of this story has yet to be written, I can say that I’m excited to be at the forefront of one of the hottest issues right now in the U.S. Charter schools will continue to grow in number and are capable of producing some of the world’s brightest scholars and athletes. If, of course, adults in the room can play nice.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.