Teachers Say 17 Firings at Urban Prep Charter Schools Were Retaliation for Unionization

Crystal Stella Becerril and Arielle Zionts

The battle over unionization at one of Chicago's most celebrated charters will be key to the future of organizing charter schools in the future.

On June 19, dur­ing their bian­nu­al semes­ter-end inter­views, 17 teach­ers were informed by school staff that they would not be return­ing to Chicago’s Urban Prep Acad­e­my come fall. The ter­mi­na­tions came just weeks after 61 per­cent of Urban Prep’s teach­ers vot­ed to form a union; activists say the fir­ings were a bla­tant act of anti-union retaliation.

Last Thurs­day, around 100 teach­ers, stu­dents, par­ents and sup­port­ers attend­ed Urban Prep’s board meet­ing to protest the fir­ings and accuse the board of harm­ing their com­mu­ni­ty and hin­der­ing stu­dent progress. They also accused the board of resist­ing trans­paren­cy and account­abil­i­ty, and cre­at­ing a high teacher-turnover rate through fir­ings and poli­cies that push teach­ers out of the school.

This is only the lat­est case of such alleged­ly unjust fir­ings, as more and more char­ter schools in Chica­go and across the coun­try are orga­niz­ing to union­ize despite the legal hur­dles, back­lash, and the com­mon belief—at least among school man­age­ment—that char­ter teach­ers don’t need unions.

Matthias Muschal told Cat­a­lyst Chica­go he was fired after work­ing as a lead Eng­lish teacher at Urban Prep’s Bronzeville cam­pus for six years for insub­or­di­na­tion — specif­i­cal­ly because he threw a piz­za par­ty for stu­dent-ath­letes and their fam­i­lies with­out noti­fy­ing admin­is­tra­tion,” accord­ing to the admin­is­tra­tion. He says the real rea­son was his union activism — a huge dis­ap­point­ment because I wouldn’t be able to teach my stu­dents any­more,” Muschal told In These Times.

Urban Prep CEO Evan Lewis wrote in a state­ment that the sug­ges­tion that any­one was fired as a result of their orga­niz­ing activ­i­ty is both wrong and offen­sive. … We respect and sup­port the right of our teach­ers to choose a union as their exclu­sive rep­re­sen­ta­tive. … Many of the teach­ers return­ing next year were active in the effort to orga­nize, and we look for­ward to con­tin­u­ing our work with them.”

At the board meet­ing, 26 peo­ple signed up to speak, although rough­ly half were allowed to address the board. Par­ents also deliv­ered over 200 let­ters in sup­port of the fired teach­ers in an effort to influ­ence the board­’s deci­sion. Not all board mem­bers, how­ev­er, were present at Thurs­day’s meet­ing — even though, accord­ing to Samuel Adams, a for­mer Urban Prep Eng­lish teacher, they all live in Chica­go. Those who did not attend the meet­ing called in — a ges­ture seen by some union sup­port­ers as disrespectful.

Teach­ers, par­ents and stu­dents who attend­ed the meet­ing praised Urban Prep’s mis­sion and suc­cess, but said the recent fir­ings go against the school’s mis­sion and will ulti­mate­ly harm the stu­dents. Engle­wood Junior Lamar Strick­land told the board he would just like to ask that you guys bring back our teach­ers because … they have all taught us some­thing dif­fer­ent that we can take in our life.”

Stu­dents were espe­cial­ly upset about the fir­ing of Eng­lish teacher Natasha Robin­son. Robert DuPont, a junior at the Engle­wood cam­pus, said Ms. Robin­son went above and beyond her respon­si­bil­i­ties like call­ing stu­dents she knew were hav­ing trou­ble get­ting to school on time. Mr. Adams said that his for­mer col­league had the high­est fresh­men test scores in the school and con­tin­ued to teach even soon after her moth­er died.

Of the out­pour­ing of stu­dent sup­port over the past weeks, Robin­son said, It’s nice to know I made an impact dur­ing my time at Urban Prep — to know that I was able to help these young men.” (Urban Prep is an all-male school.)

At the meet­ing, James Thind­wa of the Amer­i­can Fed­er­a­tions of Teach­ers (who is also a mem­ber of the In These Times board of direc­tors) also accused Urban Prep’s major­i­ty-black board of direc­tors of harm­ing the black com­mu­ni­ty and insti­tut­ing mea­sures sim­i­lar to anti-union, right-wing politi­cians like Wis­con­sin Gov. Scott Walker.

I can’t believe that this insti­tu­tion, this pub­licly fund­ed insti­tu­tion, … anchored in the black neigh­bor­hood, that is itself reel­ing from eco­nom­ic dis­in­vest­ment that in part has been caused by the attack on labor unions … is par­tic­i­pat­ing in a vile attack on a legit­i­mate insti­tu­tion that serves as a legit­i­mate coun­ter­weight to what we’re see­ing as unchecked cor­po­rate pow­er in the Unit­ed States.”

In a press release, Thind­wa wrote that because black Amer­i­cans hold a dis­pro­por­tion­ate share of pub­lic-sec­tor jobs, they have been hit espe­cial­ly hard by the decline of pub­lic-sec­tor jobs and the attacks on their unions.

The audi­ence high­light­ed the irony in these fir­ings, as one of the main rea­sons teach­ers want­ed to union­ize was to change what they say are Urban Prep’s high teacher turnover rates. They say stu­dents don’t know if their favorite teach­ers will return the fol­low­ing year, which affects their learn­ing environment.

It’s unfor­tu­nate that they would fire vet­er­an teach­ers and that there will be so much uncer­tain­ty for these stu­dents going into the new school year,” said Robin­son, who had taught at the school for sev­en years. Teach­ers say high turnover rates also mean devot­ing impor­tant time to train new teach­ers rather than to devel­op the skills of exist­ing ones.

Accord­ing to Bri­an Har­ris, a spe­cial edu­ca­tion teacher at CICS North­town Acad­e­my and Chica­go Alliance of Char­ter Teach­ers and Staff (ACTS) pres­i­dent, across the net­work, only nine teach­ers have been at Urban Prep more than five years. Now, only about half of them are returning.”

Stu­dents are call­ing for a sta­ble learn­ing envi­ron­ment, and their teach­ers know that union­iza­tion is the only way to get sta­bil­i­ty for these stu­dents and their com­mu­ni­ties,” says Rob Heise, an edu­ca­tor and activist who says he was fired from an UNO Net­work char­ter high School ear­li­er this month for his involve­ment in help­ing union­ize his school last year. Heise filed his own unfair labor prac­tice com­plaint with the NLRB two weeks ago.

Chica­go Teach­ers Union mem­bers made their way to the South Side school from their own union’s con­tract nego­ti­a­tion meet­ing ear­li­er that after­noon to show sup­port for the fired Urban Prep teach­ers. Sarah Cham­bers, a spe­cial edu­ca­tion teacher at Maria Sauce­do Scholas­tic Acad­e­my, was among them. Cham­bers said that all the Urban Prep teach­ers who vot­ed to union­ize want­ed was a voice for their stu­dents. Hav­ing played a major role in prepar­ing her school for the his­toric 10-day CTU strike back in 2012, Cham­bers knows first hand the pow­er of belong­ing to a union and added that teach­ers know that if they don’t have a union they don’t have a voice.”

Urban Prep pun­ished their staff for union­iz­ing. They lied about what ACTS is and used teach­ers’ pro­fes­sion­al devel­op­ment time to spread anti-union pro­pa­gan­da,” said Bri­an Har­ris. Their actions show a real dis­re­spect for teach­ers and democ­ra­cy and scream we don’t want to be account­able to anyone.’ ”

Chris Baehrend, Vice Pres­i­dent of Chica­go ACTS and Eng­lish teacher at Lati­no Youth High School, said retal­i­a­tion is the main rea­son why 39% of eli­gi­ble vot­ers chose not to join the Urban Prep union. They’re afraid. They’re afraid of things like exact­ly what hap­pened right here hap­pen­ing to them.”

An unfair labor prac­tice suit has been filed with the NLRB, and Chica­go ACTS will be plan­ning future demonstrations.

Dur­ing the pub­lic com­ment peri­od, Samuel Adams called on sup­port­ers to put pres­sure on Urban Prep by send­ing emails, and par­ent Shon­e­ice Reynolds called for a local school coun­cil. Reynolds cit­ed Urban Prep’s creed to make her point: It states, we have a future for which we are account­able. I chal­lenge you all to be account­able for our chil­dren’s future.”

Arielle Zionts is a free­lancer writer and, begin­ning in August, a pro­duc­er at the Inter­faith Voic­es radio show in D.C. She stud­ied anthro­pol­o­gy at Pitzer Col­lege and radio at the Salt Insti­tute for Doc­u­men­tary Stud­ies. Crys­tal Stel­la Becer­ril is a Chica­go-based Xicana activist, writer and pho­tog­ra­ph­er who reg­u­lar­ly con­tributes to Social­ist Work­er, Red Wedge and Warscapes.
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