Chicago Charter School Students Say UNO Teacher Was Fired for Union Activism

Crystal Stella Becerril

Students and alumni protest the firing of teacher Rob Heise at Major Hector P. Garcia MD High School in Chicago.

Who do we want?! Heise! When do we want him?!” Now!” stu­dents chant­ed on the after­noon of June 9 as com­muters drove down 47th street in Chica­go, occa­sion­al­ly honk­ing their horns to show sup­port and solidarity. 

A young man in a suit and tie led the call-and-response chants, wield­ing a mega­phone and fir­ing up a small crowd of stu­dent pro­test­ers. That young man is Berto Aguayo, a grad­u­ate of Major Hec­tor P. Gar­cia MD High School, an UNO Net­work char­ter school locat­ed in the Archer Heights neigh­bor­hood on the south­west side of Chica­go. He’s also a for­mer stu­dent of Eng­lish teacher Rob Heise, who was fired by the school on June 3

Heise, an edu­ca­tor and activist who was active in the recent­ly suc­cess­ful cam­paign to union­ize his school — one of the most promi­nent char­ter chains in Chica­go, which has recent­ly come under heavy fire for accu­sa­tions of cor­rup­tion—was fired ear­li­er this month for rea­sons the admin­is­tra­tion has declined to com­ment on. (The school did not respond to requests for an inter­view.) But accord­ing to stu­dents at Tues­day’s protest, Alex Rock, the school’s prin­ci­pal, told stu­dents that Mr. Heise was fired for fail­ing to turn in stu­dents’ grades and assign­ments. Oth­er stu­dents say they think Heise was fired for show­ing a Vic­to­ri­a’s Secret com­mer­cial to a class dur­ing a dis­cus­sion about how the media influ­ences and dis­torts teens’ body image and con­fi­dence. (Heise declined to com­ment on his case in light of upcom­ing legal chal­lenges to his firing.)

Daniel Izguer­ra, who was in Heise’s men­tor­ship pro­gram before grad­u­at­ing last year, says he knows the real rea­son why Heise was fired. They fired him for being an out­spo­ken union activist.” 

Heise was fired on the same day that teach­ers at Urban Prep char­ter schools vot­ed to join the Alliance of Char­ter Teach­ers and Staff (ACTS), a union that is part of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tion of Teach­ers (AFT). The fir­ing also occurred just days before the Chica­go Teach­ers Union (CTU), which rep­re­sents some 27,000 teach­ers, admin­is­tra­tors and para­pro­fes­sion­als in the Chica­go Pub­lic Schools sys­tem, ral­lied and marched in down­town Chica­go, demand­ing a fair con­tract and a just Chicago.”

Word of Heise’s ter­mi­na­tion quick­ly spread among the stu­dent body, and on June 11, as fifth peri­od lunch end­ed, dozens of stu­dents flood­ed the school’s third floor hall­way to demand his reinstatement. 

Jes­si­ca Ramirez, one of his for­mer stu­dents who is now a junior at Gar­cia High School, explained that stu­dents were on the third floor link­ing hands in the hall protest­ing.” We said we were not going to go into [class] until they brought him back,” said Ramirez. 

Protests con­tin­ued the next Fri­day when some 30 stu­dents walked out dur­ing fifth peri­od lunch. The stu­dents returned to school in time for sixth peri­od but resumed their polit­i­cal activ­i­ty once school let out. Dozens of cur­rent stu­dents joined alum­ni across the street on the south­west cor­ner of 47th and Kil­dare to con­tin­ue protest­ing. Over 50 stu­dents chant­ed in uni­son: A good teacher belongs in the class­room! Bring back Heise!” Some even wore hand­made spray­paint­ed t‑shirts with the hash­tag #BBH — stand­ing for Bring Back Heise.” 

By Mon­day, a Face­book page cre­at­ed by uniden­ti­fied stu­dents called Bring Mr. Heise Back” had gar­nered over 500 likes, and a sec­ond after­school protest drew out over 50 cur­rent and for­mer stu­dents once more who pick­et­ed and chant­ed demands for the admin­is­tra­tion to rein­state Heise at once. 

The turnout for Tues­day’s after­school protest, how­ev­er, was sig­nif­i­cant­ly small­er with only 18 stu­dents pick­et­ing, most of them alum­ni. Accord­ing to the few cur­rent stu­dents present at Tues­day’s protest, this is because Prin­ci­pal Rock called a manda­to­ry after­school meet­ing with all of the stu­dents who par­tic­i­pat­ed in Fri­day’s fifth peri­od walkout. 

Threat­en­ing stu­dents with sus­pen­sion on the week before finals is mak­ing it hard to keep the momen­tum going,” explains Aguayo of the low turnout for the fifth and lat­est after­school protest that took place last week. He says the admin­is­tra­tion has suc­cess­ful­ly intim­i­dat­ed most stu­dents from par­tic­i­pat­ing in any type of protest, but adds that they will con­tin­ue to strate­gize ways to keep pres­sur­ing the school to rein­state Heise. 

This isn’t the first time that Chica­go has wit­nessed stu­dents stand­ing up for unjust­ly fired teach­ers. Weeks before CTU’s 10-day strike in 2012, stu­dents at Lit­tle Vil­lage’s Social Jus­tice SoJo” High School staged a num­ber of sit-ins, walk-outs and protests when two Eng­lish teach­ers, Katie Hogan and Angela Sang­ha, were fired — alleged­ly because of their union activism. Three weeks of protests forced the admin­is­tra­tion to rein­state both teach­ers and all school pro­grams that had been can­celled when Hogan and Sang­ha were fired.

Heise is sched­uled to appear at a hear­ing with the Nation­al Labor Rela­tions Board (NLRB) this Fri­day. While it’s hard to say what will hap­pen as the UNO high school wraps up the school year, last week’s stu­dent protests end­ed on a sober yet deter­mined note. 

Crys­tal Stel­la Becer­ril is a Chica­go-based Xicana activist, writer and pho­tog­ra­ph­er. She is cur­rent­ly a con­tribut­ing writer for Social­ist Work­er, Red Wedge Mag­a­zine and Warscapes, where she writes about edu­ca­tion jus­tice, race, fem­i­nism and culture.
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