getting around

Democracy Prep students learn about end of apartheid firsthand

Democracy Prep alumni learn about different fossils found in Sterkfontein Caves, which is north of Johannesburg, South Africa.
Democracy Prep alumni learn about different fossils found in Sterkfontein Caves, which is north of Johannesburg, South Africa.

On the occasion of Nelson Mandela’s 95th birthday and Mandela Day, celebrated worldwide, GothamSchools is collecting tales from New York City schools about the former president of South Africa and his impact on his country.

On her last night in Cape Town, Diana Vega sat in front of a glowing computer screen and explained over Skype what it was like to see Nelson Mandela’s impact on South Africa firsthand.

Vega is one of 11 recent graduates of Democracy Prep Charter High School who spent the last two weeks touring the country that Mandela shepherded out of legal segregation as president after decades as a political prisoner.

The trip also took students briefly to Egypt, where they had a long layover at the height of the country’s recent revolution, and to Lesotho, a small country inside South Africa that boasts ski resorts.

The school’s annual trips come out of its public funds, in keeping with the charter network’s mission, according to founder Seth Andrew. Andrew, who recently stepped down as the network’s CEO, said the trips allow students to experience the classroom lessons they learn throughout the year.

“We believe you can’t truly change the world until you understand it,” he said. “To understand it, we need to travel it, read about it, and experience it.”

The 14-day sojourn included historic sites, nature preserves, adventure sports, and local schools. For part of the time, students stayed with families to experience life in South Africa.

Vega said there was a huge difference between learning about the end of apartheid in the classroom and touring Robben Island, where Mandela spent the majority of his 27 years in prison. What shocked Vega the most, she said, is that more than 20 years since the end of apartheid, she could still see its effects on the country.

“Things have changed, but it hasn’t drastically changed,” she said.

Fellow graduate Alize-Jazel Smith said she agreed, based on their travels to different townships and seeing the economic and social disparities in different neighborhoods. She said she could tell the country was moving forward, but it was hard “to measure where they’re at.”

The most memorable moment came when the group of students listened to three South Africans recount their efforts to end apartheid, she said.

“We’ve been to the museums and we’ve interacted with some of the kids, but seeing the people that actually did something or tried to do something to end apartheid … They had the power, they had the guts, they had the strength to say this is wrong and I’m going to try to do something about that,” she said. “I think that’s amazing. Those are people who change the world.”

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a  cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less five year olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.

What's Your Education Story?

As the 2018 school year begins, join us for storytelling from Indianapolis educators

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
Sarah TeKolste, right, and Lori Jenkins at a Teacher Story Slam, in April.

In partnership with Teachers Lounge Indy, Chalkbeat is hosting another teacher story slam this fall featuring educators from across the city.

Over the past couple of years, Chalkbeat has brought readers personal stories from teachers and students through the events. Some of our favorites touched on how a teacher won the trust of her most skeptical student, why another teacher decided to come out to his students, and one educator’s call to ramp up the number of students pursuing a college education.

The event, 5:30 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 13, is free and open to the public — please RSVP here.

Event details:

5:30 p.m. to 7:30 p.m.
Thursday, Sept. 13, 2018
Tube Factory artspace
1125 Cruft St., Indianapolis, IN 46203
Get tickets here and find more on Facebook

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