Chicago charter school workers organize union, stop proposed closure

Teachers, staff, students, and parents last week successfully stopped the closure of the Youth Connections Leadership Academy, a charter school that serves high-risk and dropout students in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood.

The closure was announced just two days after the academy’s teachers and staff notified their employer, Youth Connection Charter School (YCCS), that they had unanimously agreed to join and be represented by the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Chicago ACTS), an AFT local that represents teachers and staff at 12 other Chicago charter schools.

The teachers and staff decided to join the union because they thought that they needed a stronger voice on the job. “A union will enable teachers to advocate more powerfully for our students and for ourselves, which can only strengthen and enhance our school’s ability to serve our students effectively,” said Virginia Coklow, a teacher at the academy.

But shortly after notifying their employer of their decision to form a union, teachers and staff received a letter by overnight delivery telling them that YCCS’s management was recommending to its board of directors that the academy be closed and that teacher and staff contracts for the next school year not be renewed.

“This (was) union busting, plain and simple,” said Brian Harris, president of the Chicago ACTS to the Chicago Tribune. “We’ve never had anything this drastic where they’ve threatened to fire everyone or close down a school. But, every single school where we’ve tried to organize, with the exception of one, we’ve faced some push-back.”

YCCS’s management denied that the closure was related to the union organizing campaign and blamed the proposed closure on the school’s performance.

But teachers and parents alike pointed out that the school shouldn’t be judged on narrow standards like the school’s management used. Many of the school’s students have special needs and have either dropped out or been expelled from public schools. The academy isn’t a second chance, it’s a last chance for many of its students to get the education to which they are entitled.

“We serve a population of high-risk students who rely on our school for consistent support,” said art teacher Lydia Merrill. “We formed our union with the intent of creating a stable faculty with the ability to effectively advocate for ourselves and our students.”

The union also filed an unfair labor charge with the Illinois Education Labor Relations Board, which oversees union representation elections in the state’s schools, alleging that the school’s proposed closure was retaliation for the teachers’ and staff’s decision to form a union.

After filing the charge, the union urged supporters to attend and testify at an upcoming YCCS board of directors meeting where management’s closure recommendation would be considered.

The board meeting, which took place on May 31, was packed with parents, students, teachers, and staff, and many of them spoke passionately about the need to keep the school open. A grandmother of one of the students told the board that the teachers at the academy were making a big difference in her grandson’s life. “I’ve seen these teachers here until 7:30, 8:30 at night! They care about these kids,” she said.

After hearing from the academy’s supporters, the board decided not to close or restructure the school. Chicago ACTS reports that the board also agreed to cooperate with the union’s certification and that it would collaborate with teachers and staff to improve the academy.

”YCCS was correct in stepping away from a hasty decision to close or restructure the campus,” said Chicago ACTS in a statement released after the board’s decision. “(It was) an action that (the academy) staff believe would have harmed . . .  students and staff and would have been motivated by the staff’s recent decision to unionize.”

Chicago ACTS at first decided not to withdraw its unfair labor relations charge against YCCS, but reversed itself saying that it had put its unfair labor charge on hold while it conducts talks with management and its attorneys.

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