For months, Opportunity Charter School CEO Leonard Goldberg fought to keep the teachers union out of his school. On Monday, he welcomed them into his auditorium with open arms.
At a public hearing to discuss the school’s future Monday evening, United Federation of Teachers Vice President Leo Casey and other UFT officials joined Goldberg and his newly unionized staff to push back against the possibility that Opportunity could be closed. The school’s charter is up for renewal this year and the city has cited it as one of six charter schools whose performance is so weak that they could lose their right to operate.
The partnership between the school’s leadership and the union would have seemed inconceivable just a couple of months ago when the two sides were locked in a legal battle over whether the school’s teachers should be able to join the UFT.
Union officials and teachers accused Goldberg of retaliation after he fired more than a dozen teachers shortly after they voted to unionize at the school in March. Goldberg refused to acknowledge the teachers’ union vote, prompting a hearing with the state’s Public Employee Relations Board, which eventually ruled that the teachers could use the UFT as their bargaining agent. The union has also filed a grievance over the firings.
All of that was apparently water under the bridge during Monday night’s meeting, which two officials from the DOE’s charter schools office attended. Goldberg said he was happy to have the union’s support and UFT officials said the school should stay open.
The school’s performance data put it at the bottom of the city’s rankings. Last year, the high school posted a 57 percent graduation rate, only slightly lower than the city’s average. But no graduates met the city’s metrics for being college-ready. And in the middle school, just 7 percent of students met the state’s proficiency standards in English. Fewer than a quarter were deemed proficient in math.
But dozens of students, parents, and teachers who attended last night’s meeting, which featured performances from a pep band and cheer squad, said the school provides the kind of services and opportunities that no school – district or charter – has, particularly for students with special needs. About half of Opportunity’s students require special education services, some with severe disabilities, and the other half are generally among the city’s lowest-performing academically.
Chris Sammon, a senior who said he has learning disabilities, said he was ostracized at previous schools but is now on track to graduate from Opportunity.
“I know that what we’re doing is a miracle everyday and what we should be given is constant congratulations and lauding and space to do it, but all they keep doing is taking space away from us,” Goldberg said.
Goldberg’s comment reflected yet another place where school leaders and union officials forged a united front: against charter school operator Eva Moskowitz, whose Harlem Success Academy 4 shares Opportunity’s Harlem building. They said they feared that Opportunity could be closed to make way for HSA 4, which opened in 2008, to expand.
“If a decision about Opportunity Charter School is made based solely on education, and not political reasons, it can not be closed,” Casey told the audience of teachers, students, and parents to applause.
Jenny Sedlis, a spokeswoman for the Success Charter Network, said that HSA 4 a “good working relationship with Opportunity” and expressed support for the school.
“We want all schools, whether district or public charter, to succeed,” Sedlis said by email. “We’re hopeful that Opportunity will be able to overcome their academic challenges.”
Opportunity’s academic performance was a main reason why the DOE renewed the school’s charter for only a limited, probationary term in 2009. A few months later, an investigation found that poor management at the school had caused discipline rules to be enforced in ways that were at times physically abusive to students.
The school’s low teacher retention rates also raised a red flag at the DOE. During the 2009-2010 school year, 14 of 46 teachers were fired or resigned, according to city data. This summer, 14 teachers were fired and several others quit before the school year began in September.
In an interview Monday night, Goldberg said he was grateful for the union’s support at the meeting and said he was excited that the union was now in the school. Both sides confirmed that negotiations on a contract were moving forward, with a second meeting between school leaders and union officials set to take place today.
“This mission is so special that it takes all hands on deck to make it work,” Goldberg said. “And if the union wants to be a part of it, that’s great.”