charter upheaval

As charter strike enters second day, Chicago agencies offer care for students out of school

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat Chicago
Striking Acero educators at a rally on Tuesday.

Negotiations between the Acero charter school network and its 500 teachers stalled Tuesday night, prompting union officials to announce that the nation’s first-ever charter strike will extend a second day.

Meanwhile, public and community organizations such as the Chicago Park District and the YMCA of Metropolitan Chicago stepped in to help the families of some 7,000 students whose schools will be closed.

Acero management did not offer a comment on Tuesday.

The 500-member union representing teachers said that Acero management and teachers remained “far apart” on class size, compensation for paraprofessionals, and sanctuary school language in the contract.  

In Spanish and English, Acero officials offered its families guidance through robo-calls and messages on Acero schools’ websites and answering machines. The Rauner YMCA in Little Village and Lake View YMCA opened from 7 a.m. to offer daycamps to students ages 6 to 12. 

Only five children showed up to the Lake View location on the strike’s first day, but Aileen Tormon, the YMCA’s director of communications, said the organization expected that number to increase if the strike wasn’t resolved.

We anticipate a larger number of children coming to the Y for programming tomorrow,” she said on Tuesday.

At the Chicago Park District, eight parks have been staffed to accommodate up to 540 students, a spokeswoman said. Families were encouraged to register online for child care offered from 8:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at McKinley, Dvorak, Piotrowski, Riis, Warren, Independence, Gage and Humboldt parks.       

For some in the majority-Latino communities served by the Acero network, the walkout reminded them of the ongoing concerns about equity and resource distribution in their neighborhoods.

Maria Mauricio, a parent with first- and third-graders at Acero’s Veterans Memorial School Campus, said she has chosen the network for her children because she believed that the school with a Level 1-plus rating, the district’s highest, would offer a better education than her neighborhood elementary schools in West Lawn.

But when she volunteered at the school, she saw firsthand the large class sizes and overworked staff.

“I have so much respect for the teachers. I don’t know how they can handle so many students,” said Mauricio, who joined teachers on the picket line on Tuesday. “It concerns me because I wonder how much attention they are giving my child.”

Around 95 percent of the network’s students are Latino, and almost half are English language learners. Acero serves a heavily low-income population as well — around 93 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch, a proxy for poverty.

How I Teach

Why Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year uses penguins to help her first-graders grow as readers, writers, and thinkers

PHOTO: Alan Poizner
Melissa Miller reads aloud to her first-grade class at Franklin Elementary School in Franklin, Tennessee. Now in her 20th year of teaching, Miller is Tennessee's 2018-19 Teacher of the Year.

Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask educators who’ve been recognized for their work how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in the series here.

Melissa Miller loves to read, adores teaching first-graders, and has a fascination for penguins.

It’s no surprise, then, that an annual highlight for Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year is teaching a science unit she created to get her first-graders reading and learning about the unique aquatic bird.

“We have so much we can learn about and from penguins,” Miller explains. “They work together, share responsibilities, look out for each other, love each other for life, and persevere in the most challenging situations.”

The unit begins during the wintertime with reading that lets students learn penguin facts and categorize them by color and topic. Then in the spring, they do book reports on penguins — projects that “celebrate how far each child has come as a reader and writer.”

“The unit encompasses everything I believe about teaching and learning,” Miller says. “It puts me in the position as facilitator of learning. My desire is to fuel students’ passion for learning by teaching with passion.”

Now in her 20th year of teaching, Miller works at Franklin Elementary School in Franklin, south of Nashville. Her enthusiasm as a teacher and expertise in curriculum and technology are among the reasons that she was chosen Tennessee’s 2018-19 Teacher of the Year. 

Miller talked with Chalkbeat about why teaching students to read is her greatest passion, how she partners with parents to build classroom rapport, and the upside of behavioral challenges. 

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Was there a moment when you decided to become a teacher?

I wanted to be a teacher beginning as a kindergarten student in Columbia, Tennessee. My teacher, Ms. Portia Lea, was so loving and encouraging, she just won me over. I have taken away a valuable lesson from each teacher that I had in my journey toward my career. I feel like they are part of who I am. I just want to give to my students the same experience of love, encouragement, hope, belief, and perseverance that I received.

Why elementary-age students? What’s the best thing about that age group?

PHOTO: TN.gov
“My great passion is teaching kids to read!” says Miller.

My great passion is teaching kids to read! Reading opens the doors to their world and windows of possibilities for their future. I have taught kindergarten through fourth grade, but find myself best at home in first grade giving that strong foundation in reading. My first-graders are sponges for knowledge. Each child is as unique as a snowflake. They are just as loving and encouraging for me as I am for them. 

How do you get to know your students?

At the beginning of the school year, I send home a questionnaire for parents to share their insights. During the first few weeks of school, we do community-building activities each day. I need to know what motivates each student, their favorite books, their family members, their pets, and what they want to be when they grow up. While reading books such as “Amazing Grace,” “The Important Book,” “Chrysanthemum,” “I Like Me,” and “Wilfred Gordon McDonald Partridge,” we learn many things about each other and truly become a family.

Tell us about a favorite lesson to teach. Where did the idea come from?

My favorite lessons to teach are within the Penguin Research Unit that I created. Students research what penguins eat, where they live, their characteristics, dangers, and adaptations. In the process, the students learn that their brains are like folders and that they need to organize information in order to remember it. They take in new facts and categorize them by color and topic. Then they write a book report complete with table of contents, headings, captions, diagrams, author information, and a glossary. Those reports are read and edited by a local author before we publish them for others in the school to read. Because this happens in the spring, it’s a time to celebrate how far each child has come as a reader and writer. The unit ties together fiction, nonfiction, writing, math, and science standards. Even at 6 and 7 years old, the kids are learning to research their wonderings and making connections on how to contribute to the world around them.

What object would you be helpless without during the school day?

A funny necessity is my Mr. Sketch Scented Markers in all sizes to create anchor charts. A serious necessity is the rich literature that I have collected through the years. I don’t collect things, I collect books. A fun date night for my husband and me is going to the bookstore for coffee and more books.

What was the biggest misconception that you initially brought to teaching?

One of the quick lessons I learned came when I started out by communicating with parents once per week about their child’s behavior. I quickly found out that weekly would not work. Parents need daily communication. They cannot address problems if I don’t communicate them right away. The best communication plan is the one that gets the most collaboration. It strengthens the partnership between teacher and parents.

What’s the best advice you’ve received about teaching?

“If you look cute and smell pretty, your kids will love you.” That came in the first week of my first year. Not only was this funny advice, it keeps things fun!

You serve as a team leader and mentor at your school. What advice do you give to new teachers?

Love your students! Each one is an individual with their own gifts and challenges. Get to know what motivates them, because each one is unique. Listen, really listen, to your students. Know the names of their siblings, favorite sports, favorite authors, and pets. Greet each student with a smile and a personal message. And make each day count!

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.

Anytime I contact a parent about behavioral challenges, it changes my perspective and approach. This is where empathy and compassion come together. Understanding the child deep down gives me a snapshot into what motivates them and what does not. It guides me in making home-school connections ultimately to benefit both places. I need to understand where they are coming from in order to help them see the vision for where they can go.

What part of your job is most difficult?

I am constantly ON. My mind is on my kids at school as everything I do and everywhere I go ties back to teaching and learning experiences that I can share.

What are you reading for enjoyment?

Love Does” by Bob Goff

Do you have a favorite quote you’d like to share with other educators?

“Positive people on positive teams produce positive results and the essential ingredient is positive energy.” —Jon Gordon from “The Energy Bus”

charter activism

Acero strike pushes charters to the front of the education labor movement

Teachers protest Acero Schools Veterans Memorial School Campus on Dec. 4, 2018.

When Christian Herr saw in a news alert earlier this month that Acero charter teachers in Chicago had gone on strike, he felt a mixture of admiration and pride.

“I was just really excited, especially for a lot of the things they were specifically asking for,” Herr said.

Herr is a science teacher at Chavez Prep Middle School, the first charter to unionize, in Washington, D.C. The demands of Acero teachers felt in line with what he hoped his union would bring — protections for undocumented students, a shorter school year, and better pay.

The nation’s first-ever strike of charter teachers, when some 500 unionized teachers at Acero charter schools in Chicago walked off the job earlier this month, reverberated across the country. It grabbed the attention of charter teachers like Herr and their employers, as well as of the broader education community that may have regarded charters as on the fringes of their interests — until now.

Herr, whose union like Acero’s is associated with the American Federation of Teachers, said, “I am proud that we are both part of the same national group.”

National labor experts, union officials and charter teachers say the impact of the strike won’t hit the industry immediately — but when it comes, it could be big.

“I think it’s historic,” said Richard Kahlenberg, director of K–12 equity and senior fellow at the Century Foundation, a progressive think tank aimed at reducing inequality. “I think this strike could be pivotal in expanding a movement that right now is small but has the potential to grow a great deal.”

The charter strike could link two disparate, and sometimes hostile, groups:  teachers at publicly run schools and those in charter schools. The strike also could portend changes for the charter sector itself and the future of unions more broadly.

Experts estimate that 10 percent of charter schools are unionized. The American Federation of Teachers represents 7,500 charter school employees at 236 schools in 15 states. Chicago has the highest proportion of charters with union contracts, at 25 percent, but Los Angeles has more union teachers at charters.

Acero teachers succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day, in part because as private employees they could legally bargain over more topics.

That win, said Steven Ashby, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, could go a long way to convince other charter teachers that unionizing could help solve problems in their classroom.

“More charter teachers may strongly consider organizing after seeing what a short strike can get them,” Ashby said. “For those that are already unionized, I think they may be less likely to take tiny, incremental change, and instead look at the example of Chicago and say: Look, we can really win.”

Katharine Strunk, a professor of education policy at Michigan State University, agreed.

“It seems like a very good signal for other charter schools that if they were to unionize, they would be able to get the outcomes they want,” Strunk said. “It’s a bellwether moment where this could spawn consecutive striking situations by other unionized charters.”

But efforts to unionize charter teachers still face challenges. In June, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Janus v. AFSCME that labor unions could no longer collect fees from employees on whose behalf they negotiate, but who haven’t joined the union as full members.

Janus dealt a blow to public-sector unions. But unionizing charter school teachers could be a way for unions, like the Chicago Teachers Union, to continue to build a membership base.

Henig says that means they need to continue to attract members who think they have something to win. “A more militant union in some ways may be a more exciting one to attract members,” he said.

But what about the traditional approach of bodies, like the Chicago Teacher Union, as charter skeptics?

Strunk said unions that have been anti-charter would have to walk a fine line to walk when unionizing charter schools.

But, she said, it’s also possible that with more teacher input spelled out in stronger contracts, charter schools may become better for students.

“Unions’ reasoning has been that charters are not good for kids for many reasons,” Strunk said. “If now they can bring charters into the fold and create union contracts that resemble the traditional contracts they’ve negotiated, they might feel differently about the benefits these schools will have for kids.”

The strike also highlighted the similarities in contract demands of charter teachers and educators at district-run schools — about class size, budget cuts and workloads.

“Even though they are operating in two different systems that in some ways have been designed to bang heads with one another, the key issues that teachers face are often pretty similar,” said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political education at Columbia University.

Kahlenberg sees the precedent-setting strike harkening back to the original ideas around charter schools sketched by Albert Shanker, considered one of the original visionaries of charters, as laboratories where new ideas in education could be tested and teachers would have more input.

“Shanker very much wanted charter schools  to be a place where teachers had a greater voice in how schools are run,” he said. “I think we are coming full circle back to Al Shanker’s vision, in this case through the use of a strike.”

In Chicago, the effects of the strike could be felt sooner rather than later. The Chicago Teachers Union is actively negotiating 10 contracts at charter networks, two for the first time.

And teachers at the Noble Network who unsuccessfully have tried to unionize for several years and whose founder recently resigned after allegations of improper conduct with alumni, watched the Acero strike closely.

“Educators at Noble have been talking about it with their colleagues,” said Casey Sweeney, lead organizer with Chicago ACTS, which has unionized charter schools and is under the umbrella of the Chicago and the state- and national-level teachers unions.

“It would have been hard to imagine a charter strike when the Acero union was first certified” about five years ago, Sweeney said. “But it has made me incredibly hopeful for what is possible, for educators at Noble, to win.”