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.”

Changing course

After pressure from school board members, University of Memphis middle school drops its academic requirement

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University of Memphis' elementary, Campus School, is one of the highest achieving schools in the state.

Leaders of a popular elementary school known for its high academic performance are changing the entrance requirements at a proposed middle school in hopes of creating a more diverse student body.

After the Shelby County Schools board raised concerns that the University of Memphis’ plans would continue a pattern of student enrollment from its elementary school, Campus School, that is mostly white, university leaders said last week they would drop the academic requirement for the middle school.

Most Memphis students do not meet state standards for learning. Under the revised proposal, students would need satisfactory behavior records and fewer than 15 unexcused absences, tardies, or early dismissals.

In addition, the school is meant to be a learning lab for teachers earning their degrees. School leaders hope these teachers will eventually return to the Memphis school system to work with children who live in poverty. But currently, the student body doesn’t reflect the population school leaders want to serve.

“We need to make sure that new teachers are getting everything they need. That way you then can learn how to be successful in a diverse community,” board member Miska Clay Bibbs said.

White students made up two-thirds of the elementary school in 2017, the highest percentage in the district. Only 8 percent of the students lived in poverty — the lowest in the district. By comparison, more than half of students in Shelby County Schools live in poverty while only 8 percent are white.

The Memphis district has added more speciality schools in recent years to attract and retain high-achieving students, including white students, who might otherwise choose a private school or schools in the surrounding suburbs. Campus School is one that attracts a lot of white families.

It wasn’t always like that, board member Michelle Robinson McKissack said. She and other board members urged university leaders to do more intentional outreach to the surrounding neighborhood that would have priority in admissions.

“It’s surprising to me that it did seem to be more diverse when I was a child going to Campus in the mid-70s than today,” she said. “And I want to ensure that University Middle looks like Campus looked when I was going to school there.”

Until recently, Campus School was the only school with a contract in the district. Compared to charter schools, contract schools have more say in how they choose students. That allows the University of Memphis to give priority to children of faculty and staff.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
University Middle would be housed in the former St. Anne Catholic School near Highland Street and Spottswood Avenue.

Paul Little and his wife chose their house because of its proximity to Campus School. If the university’s middle school had been open, he would have enrolled his oldest daughter there. He considered other public options, but ultimately decided on an all-girls private school.

“For a long time, I was against private schools in general because if people with high academic achievers pull their kids out of public school, you’ve left a vacuum,” he said.

Little, a White Station High School graduate, disagrees with the assertion that Campus School is not diverse, citing several international students who are children of University of Memphis faculty.

At a recent school meeting, “when I looked out over the cafeteria, I saw a lot of diversity there… That’s never been a concern for me,” he said. He said he was encouraged by the university’s outreach plans “to make the school as diverse as possible.”

Board members are expected to discuss the contract with University of Memphis on Tuesday night, vote the following week, and then open online applications to the school Jan. 30. The school would open in August with sixth-graders with plans to add one grade each year after that.

voices of the vote

Meet Denver teachers who voted yes to a strike, no to a strike — and just aren’t sure

PHOTO: PHOTO: Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Skinner Middle School math teacher Peter English walks out of the Riverside Baptist Church with his son, Landon, left, and daughter Brooke strapped to his chest after voting on whether to go on strike ()

Throughout the day, the parking lot of Riverside Baptist Church filled up as Denver teachers made their way into a meeting organized by their union, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association.  

Months of negotiations that failed to produce a deal between top leaders of Denver Public Schools and the union had given way to individual teachers facing a choice: To strike or not?

Along with reporting the news of the day — which you can read about here — Chalkbeat spent time visiting with teachers to get a sense of what was shaping their decision-making.

Most teachers we spoke with, both in depth and in passing, said they voted “yes” to strike. Union officials have said two-thirds of those who vote Saturday and in a second session Tuesday must sign off on a strike for it to proceed, and the prevailing wisdom among teachers we interviewed was that support is strong.

The decision, though, is far from black and white for many teachers, regardless of where they ultimately land.

Here are the stories of three teachers, all at different places:

Krista Skuce, Slavens K-8 school: Yes to strike

At the urging of teachers and parents, Slavens K-8 students turned out early on a few recent mornings to show support for their teachers. They wore red in solidarity and posed for pictures.

They also brought questions. “Why are you doing this?” was one.

Krista Skuce, a physical education teacher and 14-year Denver Public Schools employee, would tell students that she lives 40 minutes from the school because she can’t afford to live in Denver.

Krista Skuce

But there is more to her story. Her spouse, she said, is no longer able to work, beset by medical issues, unable to draw disability benefits, and in need of costly care including massage therapy, chiropractic appointments, neuromuscular therapies, and more.  

At the same time, Skuce said her pay “doesn’t seem to be going anywhere.” So she hustles, earning extra pay by driving across town to coach softball and basketball.

Skuce, like many teachers who stopped to talk about their votes on Saturday, believes the district can do more to boost teachers’ base pay — before bonuses and incentives.  

She said her salary has only increased $4,000 or $5,000 in the past 14 years, even though she has been teaching 27 years, has a master’s degree, and is National Board Certified.

Skuce said she knows that by voting to strike, she could very well end up taking money out of her own bank account. Striking teachers don’t get paychecks.

“I am hoping the district and the DCTA do the right thing and recognize the fact that there are some people here who are on the edge,” she said. “We are on the edge emotionally, financially. We know these are good people. And I think teachers are people who wake up every morning with forgiveness.

“You have to take a stand and say what you are for at some point in time in your life — and this is it,” she said. “I’m willing to do it, scary or not.”  

Jason Clymer, John F. Kennedy High School: No to strike

An English teacher at John F. Kennedy High School, Jason Clymer stands with his fellow union members in the belief teachers aren’t paid enough. He finds fault with what is asked of teachers through LEAP, the district’s growth and performance system for teachers.

“Teachers at my school feel extremely micromanaged and can’t catch a breath,” he said.  

But in the end, after being one of the first teachers in the door Saturday and attending an information session, Clymer said he voted against the strike.

“Going on strike is very hard,” said Clymer, whose wife works in human resources for the district’s central office. “And I think the agreement DPS came to was close enough.”

Clymer questioned picking a fight now because of the limited scope of the negotiations. That would be the current agreement governing ProComp, the pay system that provides teachers one-time bonuses for things like teaching in a high-poverty school, getting strong evaluations, having students who earn high test scores, or teaching in a high-performing school.

He said he’d like to save some political leverage to focus on other issues covered by the district’s main contract with the union.

“It’s really unfortunate these things can’t all be negotiated together,” he said. “If the district came out and said, ‘We want to give you more money, not as much as you like, but we want to devote more to things like mental health services,’ I really think that would be a winning argument.”

In opposing a strike, Clymer said that he did not want to divide his fellow teachers

“Although I voted no, I believe in the union,” he said. “And if the union voted to strike, I will absolutely support the union.”

Paula Zendle, Denver Green School: Undecided about strike

Paula Zendle is dreading the moment that is appearing increasingly likely: standing before her students at the Denver Green School and explaining why she won’t be there to teach them.

“I tell them constantly, ‘Don’t miss school, don’t miss school. Don’t be absent, don’t be absent, don’t be absent,’” said Zendle, her eyes welling up with tears as she waited on a friend. “I have been fighting to avoid a strike. I hate this. It’s utterly and totally agonizing to me.”

Paula Zendle

Zendle said she left a career in the corporate world for the classroom and has been teaching eight years. She teaches English language acquisition and Spanish at the Green School, a popular and highly-rated middle school option in a district that celebrates choice.

 Zendle said she has done her research and written to the district’s chief financial officer. What bothers her is a system she believes rewards younger teachers and underpays teachers in terms of the cost of living.  

The average Denver teacher currently earns about $51,000 in base pay and $57,000 with incentives, according to data from the state education department and the district. That’s less than teachers in districts like Boulder Valley, Cherry Creek, and Littleton.

District officials have agreed to put $20 million more into teacher compensation and defended their most recent offer on Saturday as “compelling.”

For Zendle, the prospect of facing her students — and that she works in a supportive school environment — is contributing to her struggle in deciding whether to vote “yes” to strike.

So if the moment does come, what will she tell her students?

“We have the right to protest unfair taxpayer spending,” she said. “This is not only unfair, it’s unconscionable. Their priorities have been wrong for 10 years.”

Then she paused and made clear that her decision had not been made. She considers herself a person of principle, and that will guide her in making a decision.