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Labor & Worker Rights Mon Aug 09 2010

Chicago Math and Sciences - The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

[This article was submitted to Gapers Block by Kim Bobo of Interfaith Worker Justice.]

Chicago Math and Science Academy is a charter school on Chicago's far north side neighborhood of Rogers Park, an ethnically and economically diverse community that has struggled to have quality public schools. Community residents were pleased when the charter school was founded in 2004. Its first two graduating classes, in 2009 and 2010, had college acceptance rates of 100 percent.

I vaguely knew about the school because one of my choir members attended and graduated in its 2010 class. She spoke highly of the school and the teachers. She got lots of help from the school in applying for colleges and tuition assistance.
The school loomed larger in my life when it moved last year from its original location to a spot about five houses down from where I live. Chicago Math and Science Academy bought and renovated what had been a run-down shopping area. The renovation is an attractive addition to the neighborhood and I enjoy seeing the children and parents streaming around the school every morning. Although I had been inside the school once, I had never met its leadership or teachers. Nor did I know much about its philosophy. I just knew it was doing a good job. Chicago Math and Science Academy, as its website touts, is one of the top three charter schools in Chicago. It's clearly doing something right for the students and their families. This is clearly the good.

The bad is a function of the failure of the public schools to establish learning environments in which all children can learn. Into this void has entered a collection of for-profit charter schools that are only marginally accountable to local communities. Some would argue that this outside control, without having to mess with community politics, is why they are succeeding. Perhaps. But there is some weirdness here.
Chicago Math and Science Academy is a part of Concept Schools. According to its website, Concept Schools is a management organization founded in 2002 to support and develop charter schools that seek to integrate the best aspect of the Turkish and American educational systems. Concepts Schools have grown from two to 19 schools, of which 16 are in Ohio, and one each in Indiana, Michigan and Illinois. Concept Schools bring in teachers from Turkey, Russia and other European countries to help teach math and sciences. Currently, approximately 25 percent of the faculty are international teachers.

What neither the Concept Schools nor the Chicago Math and Science Academy websites mention is that most of the leadership is part of something called the Gulen Movement. Despite my many years of interfaith work, I was not familiar with the Gulen Movement, although what I have read about it impresses me. The American-born Chicago Math and Science Academy teachers first raised the Gulen philosophy with me and speak very highly of it and the immigrant teachers with whom they work. But there is something weird about a charter school being so closely linked to a philosophy, the Gulen Movement, that isn't even mentioned or referred to on its website.

When I went to the school's board meeting on July 8, I was taken aback to see a school board of directors, in this day and age, composed entirely of men. It appears that they are all of Turkish, Bosnian or Croatian descent. Although I have nothing against Turkish, Bosnian or Croatian men, it does seem that a school board serving students who are 58 percent Hispanic/Latino, 25 percent African American, 12 percent Asian and 5 percent white might be well served by some women board members and board members from ethnic backgrounds the school predominantly serves.

And now for the ugly. In the winter of 2010, the teachers began to organize a union. They were concerned about staff turnover, which they believe is related to frustrations with the school's administration, about having little input into decisions affecting their work and teaching. They were eager to help the school's leadership grapple with issues around budget, staffing and turnover. The teachers believed that the best way for them to have the input they needed and affect the direction of the school was to organize a union. So the teachers contacted Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Chicago ACTS), a local of charter school teachers and staff members affiliated with the Illinois Federation of Teachers (AFT). Two-thirds of the teachers signed union authorization cards, clearly indicating strong teacher support for having a union.

On the afternoon of June 23, the teachers announced to Principal Ali Yilmaz that they were forming a union. But, right before they marched into his office to deliver the message, Yilmaz, apparently tipped off about the event, fired Rhonda Hartwell. The two had just concluded a meeting on an unrelated matter, though Hartwell said she had deliberately set up the meeting to ensure Yilmaz would be present for the announcement. Yilmaz cited budget reasons for the termination, but in February, the school asked Hartwell to return in the fall, and on April 8, she signed her 2010-2011 contract. Furthermore, Hartwell had scored a "5" on her teacher evaluation -- the very highest achievable rating -- and was awarded a $1,500 performance bonus.

Although I have never seen Rhonda in the classroom (not that I know anything about classroom teaching anyway), her colleagues rave about her commitment to teaching and to her students. Every single Chicago Math and Science Academy teacher I have met believes Rhonda should be rehired. And collectively, they do not buy the argument that she was let go just because of budget constraints. At the same time that Rhonda was let go, the school was asking for help from local elected politicians in getting more teachers brought in a special visa programs. Something doesn't sound right here.
Chicago Math and Science Academy has hired Seyfarth Shaw, a notoriously expensive union-busting law firm, to advise it in dealing with the union. Anyone who has experience in labor issues in Chicago knows the anti-union reputation of Seyfarth Shaw. For a school facing budget cuts, it is sad that it would waste resources in hiring a law firm to help it fight having a union. But that is exactly what is happening.

Charter schools in Illinois are covered by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board, which requires that a union be certified when a simple majority (50 percent plus one) of teachers signs a "union authorization card." This process is referred to as "card check." The Concepts Schools website clearly states its support for state laws:

Charter schools are independently-operated public schools. There is no charge to parents because funding comes from state tax dollars, just like a traditional public school. In addition to adhering to all of the same state and local rules and regulations, and meeting the same academic requirements as traditional public schools, charter schools have additional accountabilities. They are overseen by their charter authorizer or sponsor, as well as their school board, and are also held accountable by their parents, who can choose another school if they are not satisfied. In addition, charter schools must be non-sectarian and adhere to all state and federal educational, health and safety regulations.

Apparently, some charter operators do not believe such state regulations extend to labor relations. On July 29, Chicago Math and Science Academy filed a petition with the National Labor Relations Board claiming it should be covered by the NLRB and not the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. This switch would mean that the school would not have to recognize the union, but would rather be able to insist on a board certified election. The principal told a community delegation I led on August 5 that he now believes the union wouldn't have as many supporters with all the laid-off teachers. I'm sure he didn't mean to imply that he laid off union supporters - but it sure sounded like it!
Compounding the ugly is the blatantly anti-union letter Mr. Yilmaz sent to parents. It is written in classic anti-union code - probably scripted by Seyfarth Shaw's high-paid attorneys. It calls the teachers' union "some third party individuals." It claims that the union has not yet been certified as the exclusive bargaining representative of CMSA's teachers and staff. Rather, a prolonged investigation period still needs to be conducted by the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. According to the agency, one reason for such an investigation is to ensure that the union has not solicited support from employees through fraud or coercion.

Basically, he is suggesting that the teachers and staff themselves fraudulently collected cards. How insulting!

Chicago Math and Science Academy is a great school that is offering a great education for neighborhood kids. This is good and we are all grateful for the school's good work. The school's leadership is clearly not being very forthcoming about its priorities, values and connections. It should be honest about its association with the Gulen Movement and educate all of us more about its principles. This lack of transparency and openness is bad. But the union-busting and disrespect shown to its teachers in the process is downright ugly. This kind of behavior will not endear its leadership to the community, and is bound to cause dissension and turnover within the teaching staff.

Chicago Math and Science Academy has a choice. It can continue down its low-road path, attacking teachers, ignoring community concerns and wasting money on high-priced union- busting lawyers. Or it can choose a path which seems much more in line with the Gulen values of respect, integrity and sincerity. It can choose to recognize the teachers union, negotiate in good faith with the teachers, rehire Rhonda Hartwell, and rebuild ties with a community eager to learn more about and support a good public school in the neighborhood. But a public school must listen to the public. Chicago Math and Science Academy, are you listening?

Ms. Bobo is the Executive Director and founder of Interfaith Worker Justice, the nation's largest network of people of faith engaging in local and national actions to improve wages, benefits and conditions for workers, especially those in the low-wage economy. She was named one of Utne Reader's "50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Your World" in 2009.

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John / August 9, 2010 10:41 AM

Hi Kim,

It looks like you have a great school. If community priority is to give good, no great education to our kids then what teachers are doing is counter-productive. You have not-so-good schools with unions all around us. So having a union really does not add any value to my kid's education. You have a school that has 100% college acceptance rate and you are trying to create a union! Is this for the benefit of my child? About the expensive lawyers; I am sure having a union would cost more than the lawyers... Let's focus on the kids.

CMSA Teacher / August 9, 2010 12:50 PM

As a Chicago Math and Science Academy teacher, I find the previous comment insulting and do not believe it is that of a parent or concerned community member.

When I was hired at this school, I was very aware of the family-like atmosphere, one to which teachers, administrators and students all commit. This commitment brings the students to the front of every decision made in order to improve the school and produce positive and productive community members.

After working at CMSA only several months of what is now years, I have noticed that there is a clear delineation between teachers and Concept Schools.

For example, teachers are brought in from other countries, predominately Turkey, and they are unqualified. Many of the teachers that are brought in do not have proper work Visas and have never taught before, even in Turkey. Not to mention the monetary kick-back that the school sends to Turkey for having these teachers here. There is no teacher shortage in Chicago, especially now after state budget cuts.

Furthermore, the contracts that teachers sign can be revoked by the Principal at any time, without warning or just cause. There is no safety at this school for teachers. There is no teacher input for curriculum development and we do not find out our course-load until school starts.

There are many more issues that the teachers have, which is why we need to be supported by our community, students and by our employer. I am a teacher because I love my career, my life decision to bring positive and educated young people into society. I do not feel safe at this school because Concept Schools do not support teachers. I stay at this school because the students are amazing and they deserve better too.

Support your community and teachers.

CMSA Teacher.

Kata / August 9, 2010 12:55 PM

John, if the priority is to make sure that the highest qualified teachers remain at the school to give your kids the best education possible, you should really be supporting the union, not fighting it. People who oppose teacher's unions think they will reduce the cost of labor yet still be able to attract and retain the highly qualified teachers they want in front of their kids every day, but it just doesn't work like that. Highly skilled teachers with years of experience deserve to be paid accordingly; their unions ensure that they receive the compensation they deserve by keeping their salaries from being cut as discretionary spending by politicians eager to score political points.

John / August 10, 2010 9:29 AM

Hi Guys,

I understand having a union for the benefit of teachers. Let's step back and take a look at the issue not as a teacher or a parent but as an independent person.
There is an organization (in this case a school) it is producing great products (in this case good education) Workers are saying we need a union. I ask Why? They say to produce good products. Well, we already have great results...
Not always but in this case union is for the benefit of the teachers not students...

Also someone above said many of the teachers are not qualified at this school. Yet we have great results!!! ???
How do you explain this?
Do we have a hidden case of xenophobia here?

I love teachers but let's focus on the kids...

Luis / August 10, 2010 5:14 PM

Indeed, let's focus on the kids........

Why is CMSA so successful? I believe it must be because of the excellent teaching that is going on. Wouldn't we want to do everything in our power to keep those teachers who are doing an excellent job for a long long long time? Do you think that the teachers who formed a union at CMSA would go through the trouble of forming a union if they DIDN'T want to be around for a while? So let's support them in this choice to form a union and celebrate their commitment to the students and community of CMSA.

Also, I'm confused by your previous comment: "You have not-so-good schools with unions all around us. So having a union really does not add any value to my kid's education." Are you blaming poor performing schools on teachers' unions? I remember learning form my high school science teacher that correlation does not prove causation. Also, she was an excellent teacher AND a union member. Oh, and don't forget that all of the best performing schools in Chicago are public schools, filled with union teachers.

CMSA Teacher / August 11, 2010 9:25 PM


It is evident that your intention here is to fill up the comments with anti-union speak and are clearly not supportive of teachers and students. Looking for any way possible to get the best results, no matter the physical, emotional or societal cost is not an effective education system. Dare I ask if you are hired by the same union-busting law firm or even Concept Schools to scour the internet looking for ways in which you can inject the opinions for which you are paid?

All across the country there are charter schools that have repeatedly become headline news for this type of treatment to their community, students, parents and teachers.

We need to be represented in our school.
Please support your community, students and teachers.

CMSA Teacher.

Concerned / August 11, 2010 10:02 PM

This is a link from one of the websites posted above. It SPECIFICALLY mentions the Chicago Mathematics and Science Academy as following the Gulen Movement.



CarolineSF / August 12, 2010 1:52 AM

The website Charter School Scandals has been following Gulen schools closely:

By the way, all charter schools that boast of 100% college matriculation rates do it the easy way -- they just kick out the kids who aren't going to make it to college. I know this is a sweeping statement, but there's plenty of evidence.

John / August 12, 2010 1:47 PM

Hi all,

As one of the wonderful teachers above pointed "correlation does not prove causation" This is true, but it cuts booth ways!

Also I am not paid by anyone to write here. I wish I could get paid for surfing the internet :-)

I am amazed how HOT the conversation gets here! I did not think I insulted anyone. I was just trying to give my opinion.

Charter Schools by definition are experiments to test new ways of teaching and managing schools.
They are given some freedom by education boards to try "crazy" things like not having unions.

Fan / August 13, 2010 1:02 PM

Just in reply to John's last comment. Here's how that "freedom" from unions is working out:

E / August 13, 2010 4:37 PM

A hundred percent college acceptance rate is very impressive. Where are the colleges? What type of colleges? Tech related? Universities? Private? Community? Internet Universities?
Also, is this school intending to track their graduates at the various colleges that they have been accepted to?

John / August 13, 2010 7:13 PM

Dear FAN,

Just like any other experiment some charter schools will fail and some will fail BIG TIME.
But, some will do OK and some others will be great.
In general teacher's unions do not like charter schools. OK that is fine.
If you have a Charter school that is doing OK or even great just let it be.

Nihat / August 14, 2010 5:44 PM

You people!
They have these education systems set up all around the world and those schools are generally one of the bests in their country. Those people know education!! Let them do their work! Look at the results! It is ridiculous that if a school has 60 percent hispanic, it should have 60 percent hispanic teachers! School just needs caring, hard working teachers regardless of race. That is what those schools do, find those teachers and put them to work!

Luis / August 16, 2010 1:58 PM

I agree with you! We need caring, smart teachers to do the increasingly hard work of educating our kids. CMSA has these teachers. Do you believe that forming a union would make these CMSA teachers all of a sudden stop caring for their students or stop working as hard as they do for student achievement?

Let's support these teachers!

CMSA neighbor / August 16, 2010 2:02 PM


Please tell me how having unionized public schools cuts both ways and how this has any implications as to how a union will affect CMSA.

John / August 17, 2010 9:24 AM

Dear CMSA Neighbor,

What cuts both ways is the statement LUIS quoted from her teacher.

"correlation does not prove causation"

I understood her to imply that having a not-so-good school cannot be linked to having a union in that school.
So I accepted that statement and added "This is true, but it cuts booth ways"
What I was trying to say was If having a union cannot be linked to having a not-so-good school then some people may say that it cannot be linked to having a good school.

Scientific truths cut both ways.

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