D.C. charters: Don’t let yourself become another Chavez Prep PCS

Yesterday the Kojo Nnambi show on WAMU 88.5 featured Cesar Chavez Public Charter School Prep Campus science teacher Christian Herr discussing the decision by his facility to unionize.  I had the opportunity to call in to the program.

Mr. Herr did an admirable job relating his concerns for the students and parents at the middle school that led the staff to bring in the District of Columbia Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, which is affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.  He described massive teacher turnover, indicating that 11 of 36 instructors, or 31 percent, have left in just the last term.  In the five years that he has been with the charter they have had four chief executive officers, four principals and four assistant principals.  Mr. Herr explained that good teachers moved on not to change careers or relocate but to take other lateral positions in Washington, D.C.  He opined that it is impossible for teachers, scholars, and parents to get their feet on solid ground when they are essentially walking into a new school every year.  His effort to bring a union started when employees noticed a lack of transparency around the reasons certain policies and procedures were implemented.

In other words, Mr. Herr is describing many of the conditions that existed at Paul PCS when teachers at that institution were considering joining the same union.  As I’ve pointed out previously, when staff feel unappreciated and not listened to, and there is a perceived lack of transparency by superiors, the environment becomes ripe for union activity.

The charter school movement in D.C. has matured and with our growing knowledge of how to best teach under-served children must also come the strengthening of our skills around management.  Employee satisfaction and engagement have to rise to the top of our priority list.

Unfortunately for Mr. Herr, he will find that the introduction of a union will make matters worse not better.  The presence of a third party sandwiched between staff and administrators is never a good idea, especially at such a small place.  It is especially sad that this group of educators has decided to partner with the AFT whose president recently used racially insensitive language to characterize people who support school choice.  But perhaps others can learn from the experience at Cesar Chavez so that this situation will not be repeated in the future.



A tough summer school lesson for the teachers of Cesar Chavez PCS’s Prep Campus

Last June the employees of Cesar Chavez PCS’s Prep Campus voted to join the District of Columbia Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff through the American Federation of Teachers.  The charter school, which first opened its doors in 1998, has sent almost 100 percent of its students off to college.  These are kids whose parents most likely never even graduated from high school.  A few days ago, the president of the American Federation of Teachers Randi Weingarten had this to day about the movement that created schools like Chavez:

“Make no mistake: This use of privatization, coupled with disinvestment are only slightly more polite cousins of segregation. We are in the same fight, against the same forces that are keeping the same children from getting the public education they need and deserve. And what better way to pave the path to privatize education than to starve public schools to the breaking point, then criticize their shortcomings, and let the market handle the rest. All in the name of choice.”

So this is what the head of Chavez’s union thinks about the work of this institution and others in the nation’s capital that, as an outcome of parental choice, educate 41,506 pupils or 46 percent of all public school students.

I am sincerely sorry and extremely disappointed that Ms. Weingarten introduced the issue of race.  I don’t like writing about this subject.  But fortunately for those of us residing in Washington, D.C. we have an antidote.

In 2011 the founder and board chair of Friendship PCS my hero Donald Hense was inducted into the National Alliance for Public Charter School’s Hall of Fame.  At the time Friendship was educating approximately 8,000 students in two states.  Over 60 percent of its pupils qualified for free or reduced price meals.  It’s Collegiate Academy had just presented its 2,000th high school diploma.  Over the previous three years this school had helped its seniors earn over $25 million in scholarship assistance which included four Gates Millennial, four Posse, and 414 D.C. Achievers Scholarships.   Here is what Mr. Hense observed during his acceptance speech.

The Friendship PCS founder informed the audience that he had graduated from Morehouse College in Atlanta.  While in school he served as a student representative to its board of trustees along with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his father.  Mr. Hense was an usher at the funeral for Mr. King after he was assassinated.  He remembered in the aftermath of this terrible event sleeping with buckets of water next to his bed in case his home was firebombed.  In the middle of the night he would be escorted to secret places in order to keep him safe.

Mr. Hense recalled that there was a lot of turmoil in the 1960s, but considering everything that he and those around him faced, he felt threatened more today by being a part of the education reform community then he did back then.

He revealed that he believes our schools are threatened not by people who don’t support charters or school choice but by education reformers who believe that reform is best chartered and directed by the same public school system that did nothing for the last 100 years.

Mr. Hense concluded by contending that he lives in a city that will try and kill charters by a thousand cuts.  Every single year, he asserted, something happens to try and knock the legs of education reform from under charter schools.  Every single year.  Then, he predicted, people somewhere in the future will sit around and say “You know I told you that charters wouldn’t work.”  Well, Mr. Hense opined, they will not work if you cripple them.

Well, we now have the staff of Cesar Chavez to thank for the latest threat to our schools.






Cesar Chavez Prep Campus approves union, board fights back

Last Thursday, in a highly misguided decision to insert a third party between themselves and their administrators, the teachers and instructional staff of the Cesar Chavez Public Charter School’s Prep Campus voted 31 to 2 to form the District of Columbia Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff through the American Federation of Teachers.  It is the first charter school in the District of Columbia to approve a union, and follows the failed effort in April to bring the same group to Paul PCS.  The move fulfills the call last December by Scott Pearson, the executive director of the DC Public Charter School Board, to add a unionized charter school to our city as a way of increasing the diversity of his portfolio.

The WAMU’s Kate McGee quotes science teacher Christian Herr’s  reaction to the vote:

“We’re excited for the opportunity to work alongside our school board and our principal to make a school that we’re really proud of into the envy of the district. . . We’ve ready to get to work on a contract that makes our school an even better place to teach and learn.”

But the board of directors over the middle school is not so thrilled.  From its statement:

“Chavez Prep must continue to improve to meet the high accountability expectations in the District of Columbia.  We know we cannot succeed without the support and full commitment of every individual on the school’s faculty and staff.  We expect everyone who joins our school community to uphold our mission and contribute.  By entering Chavez Prep after two years of campaigning, the AFT is responsible for ensuring the success of the school now, too.

Next, the Chavez School’s board anticipates entering a collective bargaining process with the new union at Chavez Prep that will reflect the values of the school and our network.  We believe that what is good for teachers can-and must-be also good for our scholars.  When there are updates of interest to the broader Chavez community we will share them.

The first Chavez school opened in 1998 with 60 students in a grocery store basement.  Our mission has always been to prepare students to succeed in competitive colleges and empower them to use public policy to create a more just, free and equal world.  None of our schools would exist today without the freedom, flexibility and creativity that being a public charter school allows.

We know what distinguishes Chavez Schools from many other schooling choices for DC families and employment options for talented educators, and we are determined to preserve those distinctions as we strive to be among the city’s highest-performing schools.”

Perhaps preserving those distinctions will result in the closing of this campus.

Cesar Chavez PCS fighting back against efforts to unionize Prep Campus

Writer Hamilton Nolan reports that the leadership at Cesar Chavez PCS’s Prep Campus is not sitting still while teachers attempt to bring in the American Federation of Teachers at the school.  According to Mr. Nolan, “Yesterday [last Monday], a letter from the school’s principal and assistant principal went out to all teachers and staff. They were informed that there will be an ‘important meeting’ today at 3:30 to discuss the union election, because ‘we are now placed in an accelerated process that has huge implications on ‘[sic]’ how we function as a school and a system.'”

The notice then goes on to explain procedures as outlined by the National Labor Relations Board regarding the election of a union and concludes with the statement, “Over the next few days, there will be a series of events and meetings in an effort to inform all stakeholders of the position of our school and engage in discussions around what this election could mean and the effect it will have on not only our scholars and staff, but our entire Chavez community.”

In my last post on this subject I asked what Chavez founder and current board member Irasema Salcido thinks of this effort.  Now the answer is clear.  According to Mr. Nolan:

“Cesar Chavez Prep’s principal and assistant principal have not responded to a request for comment. But Claudia Andrade, an English Language Arts teacher at the school, told us, ‘Given that our namesake is Cesar Chavez, we expected the Cesar Chavez PCS board would have been more receptive towards our efforts to unionize. Instead, they decided to push back by hiring a law firm and holding a mandatory meeting today. This meeting will take away valuable time that teachers could be spending with scholars in the classroom improving grades.’ And Christian Herr, a science teacher, said ‘Despite our namesake, we never really expected our board to come to the table with us without a fight… Everyone I’ve talked to today has said something along the lines of ‘bring it on.’ We’re ready, and we’ll win.’”

Interestingly, a web search on the subject of efforts to organize at Chavez PCS turned up a Washington CityPaper article from 2010 stating that the charter settled with former Capitol Hill history teacher David Krakow for $15,000 in his claim that he was terminated from the school after he tried to form a union.  The school, however, denied that the teacher was fired over the unionizing issue, with then director of human resources Terri Smyth-Riding stating in the CityPaper piece that, “We did not want to incur any further legal expense.”

A vote by teachers at the Prep campus on whether to unionize is expected at the end of this month.  Let’s sincerely hope that the staff figures out that the introduction of a union will create a gigantic barrier between the needs of the teachers and students and the ability of the school’s leadership to meet them.

Teachers at Cesar Chavez PCS misinterpret contribution of school’s namesake

While I was away studying public schools in Paris, WAMU’s Mikaela Lefrak broke the news that the teachers at Cesar Chavez Public Charter middle school’s Prep campus are preparing to vote at the end of this month on their desire to join a union.  The plan appears to be a repeat of the failed effort at Paul PCS earlier this year to form the District of Columbia Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff, which would be affiliated with the American Federation of Teachers.  In the case of Paul, the AFT called off the ballot after it was clear the measure would go down in defeat.  Let’s hope the same thing happens at Chavez.

Ms. Lefrak includes in her article the rationale for the move to unionize at the charter:

“’We’re a school named after Cesar Chavez, famous for unionizing migrant workers,’ said school librarian Jennie Tomlinson. ‘We just want teachers to have a say in decision-making.’”

What Ms. Tomlinson does not understand is that once a union is brought into Chavez, teachers will have less say at the school than they currently do since every major decision will have to be negotiated with management through a collective bargaining agreement.  Gone will be the day staff can walk into the principal’s office with an idea that can be tried on the spot.

I also have to say that the analogy to the lifework of Cesar Chavez is simply false.  A recent article by WAMU’s Maureen Pao about the contributions of Mr. Chavez recalls:

“Born into a Mexican-American family of migrant farm laborers and a life of grinding poverty, Chavez dedicated his life’s work to improving conditions for the legions of farmworkers who kept fresh food on the tables across America — while they often went hungry, living and laboring in abysmal conditions and being paid unlivable wages.”

I highly doubt similar circumstances exist for the educational professionals at Chavez.

At this point, according to Ms. Lefrak, about 28 of the charter’s 35 teachers plan to cast ballots to approve the union.  I wonder what Irasema Salcido, the founder of Chavez, who grew up on a farm tilled by migrant workers, thinks about the organizing effort.  I really wish Scott Pearson, the executive director at the DC Public Charter School Board, had never suggested that a unionized charter come to our city.