seat at the table

These Detroit teachers aren’t giving up hope that a union can help bring stability to struggling charter schools

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Southwest Detroit Community School families wearing union tee shirts gathered near the school in June before marching to demand a new contract for teachers.

Some teachers and parents gave up hope that the Southwest Detroit Community School could recover from backsliding test scores and relentless administrative turnover.

So they left. Enrollment is down this year roughly 10 percent at the small K-8 charter school in Detroit, and only half of the teachers returned in the fall.

It’s a familiar story in Detroit, where one in three elementary students changes schools every year, often because parents respond to problems in the classroom by moving their child to a different — if equally troubled — school.

But a vocal group of parents and teachers arrived at a board meeting last week with a different message. They said they would stay at the school, but that they wanted the teachers — through their newly formed union — to play a greater role in the daunting task of turning around the school.

The school has only about 30 teachers, but their collective bargaining agreement, signed this summer, was a remarkable development in a Michigan charter school landscape viewed by many labor leaders as inhospitable to unions.

Their victory points a way forward for unions in charter schools and suggests that unions overall can overcome a string of political defeats by pitching themselves as the solution to problems that are deeply ingrained in Detroit schools.

The teachers’ successful organizing effort was based in part on convincing educators and school leadership that a union was an essential ingredient in turning around a struggling school. Five different principals have led the school since its founding in 2013, and teachers felt they could help stabilize the school.

Yet any hope of a team effort in turning around Southwest Detroit Community School has taken a serious hit in the first months of the school year. Union members allege that the management company, EAS Schools, violated the clause in their contract that would give them a role in hiring administrators.

Heather Gardner, president of EAS, denies that the company violated the clause, and she said she hopes the company can work with teachers to turn the school around.

Teachers’ “hard work in collaboration with administration’s vision and direction is what will allow the school to … successfully serve the children of Southwest Detroit,” Gardner wrote in an email.

But the current tensions make clear that they have competing visions for how to improve the academic performance of a school where fewer than one-third of students are reading or doing math on grade level.

The school’s low test scores have drawn scrutiny for state officials. It could face closure if it fails to hit improvement targets laid out in a contract with the state department of education.

Teachers say they’ve been shut out of decision making, and argue that the school will fare better if they have a seat at the table.

“We want to use our collective voice to establish stability within the school,” said Kammy Webb, a teacher and union member. She hopes that the union can give voice to the interests of both teachers and families, many of whom have been with the school since its founding.

“The teachers have been more constant here than the administration,” she said. “Our hope was to increase teacher retention by making sure that people feel they do have a voice. A lot of the decisions just felt like they were being made in a vacuum.”

Contributing further to the tensions, the union filed a formal unfair labor practice charge against EAS over the suspension of chapter chair Jacob Robinson.

Robinson was put on administrative leave with pay last week pending an investigation. Gardner says Robinson shared details from a meeting with administrators that she says was confidential. Robinson says it was his duty as an elected union official to share information about wages and hours with union members.

Educators at Southwest Detroit Community School join other teachers who have sought a greater voice in school-level decisions by forming a union despite recent policy shifts that some viewed as a death knell for organized labor at school.

Within days of the vote to form a union at Southwest Detroit Community School, the U.S. Supreme Court issued a decision in Janus v. AFSCME that effectively spread so-called “right-to-work” laws to every state in the country. The ruling meant that unions could no longer automatically deduct membership dues from workers’ paychecks, or collect dues from workers who were represented by the union in labor disputes but who chose not to be members.

Experts predicted that the decision would deal a painful blow to teachers unions nationwide. They pointed to declines in membership and fundraising in Michigan since the state passed its own version of “right-to-work” in 2012.

But the evidence also shows that teachers unions in “right-to-work” states like Michigan are showing signs of resilience despite membership declines, as leaders look for creative ways to win new members. According to research by education professors Bradley Marianno and Katharine Strunk, Janus could “cause union leadership to listen to their members in new ways.”

Nate Walker, a Detroit-based organizer and political analyst for AFT, said that the methods used in the organizing effort at Southwest Detroit Community School are not new.

“Teachers have fought long and hard to make sure they have a voice in their workplace, and that cuts across traditional and charter schools,” he said.

Still, some argue that efforts to give teachers a greater role in school policy might be uniquely suited to expanding unions’ presence in charter schools. In Detroit, just under 10 percent of charter schools are unionized, but it remains to be seen whether unions like the American Federation of Teachers will seek to offset post-right-to-work membership losses by expanding into charter schools, Marianno said. Walker declined to comment on the union’s plans.

Marianno said that using unions as a way to gain a voice in school-wide decisions could be especially effective in charter schools because teachers who are drawn to them are more likely to want to play a role in improving schools — and thus are more likely to join a union that lets them.

“Throughout labor’s history in education, they’ve made this call to expand beyond the bread and butter of wages and working conditions,” Marianno said. “On the whole it hasn’t really taken hold,” adding: “It’s a natural avenue given the differences between the charter sectors and traditional schools.”

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans. 

carry on

These 16 Denver charter schools won renewal from the school board

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Sebastian Cruz waves to Rev. Leon Kelly as he works with children in a classroom during his after-school program at Wyatt Academy in September 2018.

The Denver school board on Thursday night unanimously renewed agreements with 16 of the district’s charter schools. The lengths of those renewals, however, varied from one year to five years — and signaled the board’s confidence in the schools to deliver a quality education.

The board also accepted Roots Elementary’s decision to close and surrender its charter at the end of this school year. The Park Hill school is facing low enrollment and high costs.

Denver Public Schools is a charter-friendly school district that has for years shared tax revenue and school buildings with its 60 publicly funded, independently operated charter schools. The schools are controversial, though, with opponents viewing them as privatizing public education.

Every charter school in Denver has an agreement with the district that spells out how long it’s allowed to operate. To continue running after that time period, the charter school must seek renewal. The arrangement is part of the deal for charters: They get the flexibility to operate independently, but they must periodically prove to the district that they’re doing a good job.

The school board relies on one set of recommendations from Denver Public Schools staff and a second set of recommendations from a districtwide parent committee in deciding how long a leash to give each charter school. The district staff and the parents on the committee consider factors such as test scores, school culture, financial viability, and the strength of a school’s leaders when making their recommendations.

They also consider a school’s rating on Denver Public Schools’ color-coded scale based largely on academic factors. The School Performance Framework, or SPF, labels schools either blue, green, yellow, orange, or red. Blue means a school has a distinguished academic record, while red means a school is not meeting the district’s expectations.

The staff recommended the school board renew the charters of all 16 schools that applied. Two other charter schools — DSST: Cole Middle School and Compass Academy — are also up for renewal this year. But because they earned the district’s lowest rating, they must go through a separate process in which they will present a detailed improvement plan. Their renewals will depend on the strength of their plans, which is why they weren’t included in this batch.

The board approved the 16 renewals Thursday without discussion. All of the new terms begin next school year. Here’s the rundown:

STRIVE Prep Federal, a middle school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2006
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: Green Valley Ranch High School, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

Rocky Mountain Prep Creekside, an elementary school in southeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Green
Renewal: Five years

DSST: College View High School, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Green
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Leadership Academy, a high school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Blue
Renewal: Three years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Elementary School, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Rocky Mountain Prep Southwest, an elementary school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible three-year extension

Wyatt Academy, an elementary school in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2003
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

KIPP Northeast Denver Middle School, a middle school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2011
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Downtown Denver Expeditionary School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2013
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible two-year extension

Denver Justice High School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in central Denver
Year opened: 2009
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

REACH Charter School, an elementary school in central Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Yellow
Renewal: Two years, with a possible one-year extension

Monarch Montessori, an elementary school in far northeast Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

STRIVE Prep SMART, a high school in southwest Denver
Year opened: 2012
School rating: Orange
Renewal: One year, with a possible two-year extension

Academy of Urban Learning, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northwest Denver
Year opened: 2005
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year, with a possible one-year extension

Rise Up Community School, an alternative high school for at-risk students in northeast Denver
Year opened: 2015
School rating: Red
Renewal: One year