state of the union

Teachers at city's first charter school vote to unionize

The teachers union has struck another blow to Victory Schools, a for-profit management group that has bitterly clashed with the union.

All but one of the 28 teachers and other instructional staff at the Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem, which is run by Victory, signed union authorization cards and told the school’s principal and board they intend to unionize yesterday.

Victory operates nine charters in New York City; Sisulu-Walker is the third to try to unionize. The United Federation of Teachers has accused Victory of overcharging its schools for compliance and back-office work while underpaying its teachers and scrimping on class supplies and building maintenance.

Last summer, the union waged a battle with another of Victory’s unionized schools, Merrick Academy, after the school fired 11 staff members, notifying them by Fed-Ex. Three of those teachers were re-hired in September in an agreement with the union. The UFT has also never reached a contract agreement with Merrick’s board since teachers there voted to unionize in 2007.

And Victory’s other unionized school, the New York City Charter High School for Architecture, Engineering and Construction Industries, has also been plagued with problems. Teachers’ request to unionize there is currently in contract negotiations, and the school’s founder has been charged with embezzling from a non-profit company.

The UFT currently represents teachers at 14 other city charter schools.

Sisulu-Walker opened in September 1999 as the city’s first charter school; Victory partnered with a group of Harlem activists, including State Senator Bill Perkins, who has become one of the charter school movement’s most vocal critics.

The school has struggled academically. The school received the 15th-lowest score on this year’s city progress report cards, ranking in the bottom one percent of all schools. Though the school received a “C” on the report card, it received “F’ grades in the school environment and progress categories.  And on a city survey of the school’s teachers (pdf) last year, most of the school’s teachers reported problems with order and discipline.

Teachers at Harlem charter school join the UFT

Sisulu-Walker Charter School educators seek professional voice in their school and a collaborative working environment

Teachers and staff at the Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem announced yesterday that they have decided to join the United Federation of Teachers.

Of the 28 teachers and other pedagogical staff at the school, 27 have signed union authorization cards to indicate their support for creating a UFT chapter at the school.

In letters given to the school’s principal and Board of Trustees, the teachers’ organizing committee explained that they were seeking “recognition of the teaching and professional staff as respected partners” in carrying out Sisulu Walker’s educational mission and expressed a “sincere hope” that both the principal and the trustees would “react positively to our decision, acknowledging the benefits of a strong and stable staff and committing to work with us through the remaining steps of this process.”

The UFT filed a formal petition today with Sisulu-Walker’s board of trustees, and notified the state’s Public Employment Relations Board (PERB) that Sisulu-Walker teachers are seeking union recognition. If Sisulu-Walker’s board does not recognize the union as the bargaining representative within 30 days, the UFT can ask PERB to certify the bargaining unit on the basis of the authorization cards.

“Teachers get into this profession because they care about giving students an excellent education. To do their jobs effectively, they need both support from their school and a professional voice,” said UFT President Michael Mulgrew. “By taking this step, the Sisulu Walker teachers have shown that they are committed to creating the best learning environment that they possibly can for their students. We are proud to welcome them into the UFT.”

“We took this step to ensure that classroom teachers will have a real, professional voice in the decisions that affect the quality of our students’ education,” said Sisulu-Walker teacher Shaquira De La Cruz.

Sisulu-Walker teacher Doris Fleming said “I’m proud to join with my colleagues in seeking to guarantee the collaborative working conditions that we need to make Sisulu Walker an excellent learning environment for the kids.”

The UFT operates two unionized charter schools, and co-operates a third in collaboration with Green Dot, a successful and teacher-friendly charter school management company. The UFT also represents educators at eleven other charter schools in New York City.

The Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem opened in the fall of 1999, as one of the first three charter schools in New York State. It currently serves approximately 250 students in grades K through 5.

The school’s mission is to offer “rigorous and challenging academic curricula taught by a highly-prepared and committed cadre of professional educators.” The school day has extended hours, and students also attend programs on the weekends and during the summer. The school is located at 125 West 115th Street in Harlem.

Sisulu-Walker is run by Victory Schools, a for-profit educational management company based in New York City.

weekend update

How the education world is reacting to racist violence in Charlottesville — and to Trump’s muted response

PHOTO: Andrew Dallos/Flickr
A rally against hate in Tarrytown, New York, responds to the violence in Charlottesville.

For educators across the country, this weekend’s eruption of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, offered yet another painful opportunity to communicate their values to families, colleagues, and community members.

Many decried the white supremacists who convened in the college town and clashed with protesters who had come to oppose their message. Some used social media to outline ideas about how to turn the distressing news into a teaching moment.

And others took issue with President Donald Trump’s statement criticizing violence “on many sides,” largely interpreted as an unwillingness to condemn white supremacists.

One leading education official, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, followed Trump’s approach, criticizing what happened but not placing blame on anyone in particular:

DeVos’s two most recent predecessors were unequivocal, both about what unfolded in Charlottesville and whom to blame:

Leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions responded directly to Trump:

The American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten’s union, is supporting vigils across the country Sunday night organized by chapters of Indivisible, a coalition that emerged to resist the Trump administration. The union also promoted resources from Share My Lesson, its lesson-plan site, that deal with civil rights and related issues.

“As educators, we will continue to fulfill our responsibility to make sure our students feel safe and protected and valued for who they are,” Weingarten said in a statement with other AFT officials.

Local education officials took stands as well, often emotionally. Here’s what the superintendent in Memphis, which is engaged in the same debate about whether Confederate memorials should continue to stand that drew white supremacists to Charlottesville, said on Twitter:

Teachers in Hopson’s district return for the second week of classes on Monday. They’ve helped students process difficult moments before, such as a spate of police killings of black men in 2016; here’s advice they shared then and advice that teachers across the country offered up.

We want to hear from educators who are tackling this tough moment in their classrooms. Share your experiences and ideas here or in the form below. 

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

Updated (July 31, 2017): A U.S. Education Department spokesperson responded to our request for comment, calling the New York Magazine story “nothing more than a hit piece.” Said Liz Hill: “The magazine clearly displayed its agenda by writing a story based on largely disputed claims and then leaving out of the article the many voices of those who are excited by the Secretary’s leadership and determination to improve education in America.”