A Veteran Educator's Charter School Experience

When two teachers came up to Kashi Nelson earlier this year and invited her to a meeting, Nelson was not at all enthused.

After

all, it was all the extra meetings at the KIPP school in Brooklyn that

the veteran educator felt were making the school year so hard.

But

this wasn't just another hastily-scheduled, superfluous-seeming meeting

where administrators would lecture teachers. This was a meeting for

teachers to talk about whether to join the union or not.

Knowing that, the 7th and 8th grade social studies teacher decided to go.

"If something's going on around me, I want to know," says Nelson."Let me just see what's up."

Nelson's

experience at KIPP AMP sheds light on how teachers at the small charter

school came to believe that union representation was the best way to

go, and illustrates some of the challenges that charter networks like

KIPP face when their numbers increase and their faculties become more

diverse.

When two teachers came up to Kashi Nelson earlier this year and invited her to a meeting, Nelson was not at all enthused.

After

all, it was all the extra meetings at the KIPP school in Brooklyn that

the veteran educator felt were making the school year so hard.

But

this wasn't just another hastily-scheduled, superfluous-seeming meeting

where administrators would lecture teachers. This was a meeting for

teachers to talk about whether to join the union or not.

Knowing that, the 7th and 8th grade social studies teacher decided to go.

"If something's going on around me, I want to know," says Nelson."Let me just see what's up."

Nelson's

experience at KIPP AMP sheds light on how teachers at the small charter

school came to believe that union representation was the best way to

go, and illustrates some of the challenges that charter networks like

KIPP face when their numbers increase and their faculties become more

diverse.

The meeting was held at a cafe. Over soup and muffins, teachers

shared what was going on in their classrooms. There, Nelson realized

that she wasn't the only one with concerns about how the school was

being run, nor the only one who had tried privately to come up with

ways to address the problems - to no avail. A collective effort to get

the administration's attention was considered but dropped. "The school

veterans didn't feel it would make a difference," says Nelson.

She

didn't sign that day, but soon after she added her name to those who

were seeking union representation, along with several others.

Of

course, not all the teachers -- including some of Nelson's closest

friends at the school -- wanted to join the union. And not everyone was

happy about the unionization effort. Seeing her wearing a union pin, a

colleague accused her of "single-handedly bringing the school down."

Nelson doesn't fit the stereotype of a charter school teacher.

She's got 12 years of education experience -- and a law degree. She was an

assistant principal at a magnet school in North Carolina

before coming up to join KIPP AMP in January last year. She has two

daughters, ages 3 and 12 -- the eldest attends the school. She's familiar with the NEA from her days as a teacher.

Nor

does KIPP AMP fit the model for a unionized workplace. Like most

charter networks, the KIPP model is designed to operate outside of

union rules. Instead, the schools -- most of them small middle schools

-- offer the promise of a collaborative, flexible workplace. There are

just 86 AFT-organized charter schools nationwide, according to a union official.

Still, it seemed at first like the unionization effort might happen

without too much conflict. The teachers union sent out a somewhat

exuberant press release about the vote to unionize, but president Randi

Weingarten spoke in conciliatory tones about what the union hoped to

accomplish at the school (NYT, GS).

By

early February, however, reports started coming out about stalled

negotiations and alleged intimidation by KIPP administrators (GS, NYT).

The path that led to this point began last year, if not earlier.

Nelson

joined the school halfway through the 2007-08 year, when her

predecessor left. She had been researching KIPP for years. She knew

what to expect. The classroom wasn't a

struggle for her, nor the long hours. It didn't take long for beginning

teachers to start coming to her for classroom management ideas.

If there was any settling-in

process, it had to do with the expectations of collegiality and

socializing within KIPP. Nelson had never been this close to colleagues

before, and it took effort

for her to let down her guard and engage in KIPP's "team and family" approach. Still, some of the personal relationships

among KIPP members seemed problematic to her, as did the after-hours

drinking.

Nelson

says that there were tensions and rumblings at the school last year,

especially coming from the founding teachers. She remembers there

being a lot of home office staff in the building.

At some point

along the way, Ky Adderly, who had been

principal and had hired Nelson, was moved over to be "founding"

principal. He remained in the building but was no longer in charge of

the teachers. Two founding teachers, Jeff Li, and Melissa Parry, were

named assistant principals. By the end of the year, Li and Parry were

named co-principals and Adderly was assigned to the citywide KIPP

office (but remained in the building).

For

a time, it seemed to Nelson like these changes were going to work.

Teachers got a break in July while Li and Parry got trained. Everyone

seemed hopeful and optimistic during summer meetings when they got

back. The faculty revisited the KIPP core values, and did

team-building exercises to bond founding faculty and new teachers like

Nelson. "We all drank the cool-aid," says Nelson.

Once

problems started coming up again in the new school year, however, the

mood changed quickly despite the change in leadership. Teachers were

"shut down" and told to talk

offline whenever they raised issues at meetings, according to Nelson.

But those follow-up conversations never happened. Other promises went

unmet, including regular videotaped

observations. "It

was all talk," says Nelson. "Just talk."

It didn't make Nelson

feel any better when the teacher across the hall from her was fired.

Another teacher had been fired last spring.

Still, going to the

union was not anyone's first choice. Adderly declined to intervene

when Nelson went to him with complaints about the new leaders. Her

efforts to get word to Levin via back channels didn't seem to work,

either. Levin was at the school once a week, but seemed oblivious to

the extent of the problems -- perhaps distracted by plans to expand

KIPP to elementary and high schools. "He's not able to do this all on

his own," says Nelson. Others pursued similar efforts to keep things working, to no avail.

Not surprisingly, things have been

confusing and uncertain since the teachers decided to unionize. Teachers and administrators, pro and con, are all stuck there at the school together each day, like a couple that

is broken up but have to share the same apartment for a few awkward

weeks until someone moves out.

One of the assistant principals, Li, has stopped

coming to school and is now on leave, according to Nelson. (An effort

to reach him via email was unsuccessful.)

Meantime, the national union gotten involved, sending reporters "fact sheets"

about the situation and offering to put reporters in touch with KIPP

teachers like Nelson [which is how we came to talk].

Nelson says that going public

was a necessity in the face of KIPP's efforts to push back against the

unionization effort and its effectiveness winning positive press

coverage. [For their part, school administrators and KIPP founders have generally refrained from commenting to the press.]

"I wish we didn't have to play this all out in public," says Nelson, talking on the morning of her daughter's third birthday.

Teachers

come back from break on Monday. The PERB meeting has been scheduled for

March 19th. In the meantime, perhaps some of the main players in this

story -- Adderly, Li, and Parry -- will share their side of events.

"We

don't want a 30-page

contract," says Nelson, contrary to published reports. She imagines

something much shorter. She thinks that just a few provisions focused

on the school's leave policy and evaluation procedures "will foster teacher retention which benefits the

students and the school."

Despite the last year's ups and downs, and all her previous years in education, Nelson remains upbeat and confident that this could all work out for the better.

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