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Exclusive Excerpt: “Stray Dogs, Saints, And Saviors”

By traditional labor standards, the contract governing Green Dot charter schools is woefully insufficient — there’s no tenure, or right to strike — and the union itself is a misbegotten creation of founder Steve Barr’s imagination (a management, or “yellow” union). But public employee rights and union contracts vary substantially across the country, and public school teachers in many districts — and most charter school teachers — work without any formal collective bargaining authority at all.

So how much contract is enough? Is it all or nothing? This is one of the key issues of my book, “Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors,” which tracks the turnaround effort at a South Central Los Angeles high school called Locke where teachers petitioned to turn the school into a unionized charter school under Green Dot Public Schools. There are a handful of unionized charters already operating in the city (including a Green Dot high school opened with the support of Randi Weingarten), and the New York Times has reported that the city Department of Education is talking with Green Dot founder Steve Barr about doing a turnaround high school next year.

The excerpt below — part of the chapter that Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews referenced in his recent review of the book — gives a peek into how the contract played out that first year at the “new” Locke, when nearly all the teachers were new, hundreds more neighborhood kids had showed up than anyone had expected, and school administrators and Green Dot were scrambling to keep things afloat.

Previously uninterested in union issues, veteran art and drama teacher Monica Mayall became union rep for the building and began communicating teachers’ complaints about class size and other workload issues to the union president and Locke senior management. Campus aides weren’t in the halls when they were needed. Classroom phones didn’t work. The bells rang at random moments—worse than having no bells at all. Counselors and administrators sent notes to students during the middle of class, another bothersome interruption. ‘‘She grieved a litany of things,’’ said Coleman. ‘‘Some things I had bullheadedly gone into, trampling toes. Other things I was like, ‘Come on, Monica. How ticky-tacky are you going to get?’’’ But class size wasn’t a small issue, and wasn’t just a matter of teachers’ workloads. Green Dot was receiving federal class size reduction funds, which ostensibly brought class sizes down to twenty-eight for certain core academic subjects. The school could lose funding if the class sizes weren’t reduced. For weeks, Mayall bugged everyone who would listen to her about the class sizes being too big. She talked about the issue at faculty meetings. She talked to Coleman. She talked to Green Dot people when they came on campus. Then, in mid-October, Mayall and the union filed a grievance against Green Dot over the class-size issue—the first such grievance filed in the organization’s history. There were thirty-six classes with over thirty-three students. Officially, Green Dot welcomed concerns from teachers. But in practice, dealing with teachers’ complaints was complicated, and taking action could be expensive. Green Dot wanted to make sure that teachers’ class loads were ‘‘balanced’’—spread so that class sizes were even from section to section—before hiring anyone else. And it had the law on its side. Although the Green Dot talking points were clear about class size, the actual contract language merely set a target of twenty-four kids per class, and required conversations and unspecified relief measures. There was no hard-and-fast requirement that Green Dot hire more teachers or pay its current ones more as compensation (as is done in many districts). This was no matter to Mayall; she would bother and embarrass administrators into responding even if they didn’t legally have to. She was pesky and persistent—annoyingly polite and impervious to the glances and hints that she should be a team player along with everyone else. She wasn’t giving up, either, sweet and relentless, annoying even those who agreed with her. Her case was bolstered in early November when a rookie teacher was attacked by a special education student in one of the overstuffed classrooms. ‘‘I did not sign up for this,’’ wrote the teacher in a desperate e-mail, noting that there were several special education students in the classroom but none of the classroom aides that were supposed to be there to help. ‘‘please come to my class.’’ He didn’t come back the next day, and quit shortly thereafter. Contract or no, it seemed clear after this incident that if something didn’t happen, other teachers would start leaving—at the end of the year if not before. Green Dot claimed a 90 percent retention rate for its teachers in the past. But a mass exodus from Locke could lower that number quickly. Pushing her case even harder, Mayall finally sent a letter to Coleman, the senior managers at Green Dot, and the union: ‘‘Our students are not getting the intervention or support they need to master the curriculum—due in part to the sheer size of our school and the need for more instructors and smaller class sizes,’’ she wrote. ‘‘This is a disservice to these students as well as a disruption to the classes already in progress which they are entering.’’ The letter hit Coleman hard. She came to Mayall’s classroom after school and—briefly—broke down, blinking through tears and valiantly trying to stop her lip from trembling. Coleman was new at the job. She was doing her best. She couldn’t control the district or Green Dot. It was an impossible situation. ‘‘She was exhausted and overwhelmed, trying to do everything she could manage,’’ said Mayall, who didn’t blame Coleman. ‘‘Green Dot didn’t really have any idea of what they were getting into.’’ After the fact, Coleman was glad Mayall had taken action. ‘‘I’m more desperate for the help than I’m worried about the union thing,’’ she said. In the end, there was no dramatic response from Green Dot, no sudden hiring spree or ban on oversized classes. The union met with Green Dot to talk about teachers who were over the limit; administrators met with the affected teachers and, eventually, made a handful of additional hires. Teachers with the impacted classrooms ‘‘agreed’’ to retain more than thirty-three students per class. Seniors with enough credits were pulled out of classes and scheduled into ‘‘service’’ positions in various offices around the school, filing papers or answering phones. But these changes were enough. As of February, just two teachers had resigned—far fewer than in previous years—and over 80 percent of teachers would sign up to return for a second year, compared to the past standard of about 50 percent under Los Angeles Unified. Even those who weren’t directly affected—or who were deeply suspicious of teachers unions from past experiences—were glad to know that teachers’ perspectives were being communicated up the chain of command. ‘‘At least the teacher’s side was being aired,’’ said English teacher Sully. Whether or not teachers at Locke paid much attention, Green Dot took the contract seriously, creating an invisible safety net under the hard work being done in the classroom. The contract didn’t intrude on school life very much, day to day, but when needed it was there, and proved to be sturdy both during the first year of the Locke turnaround as well as during future years, when growth and consolidation would create an even greater need for established structures.

Alexander Russo is an education writer and creator of two education blogs, “This Week In Education” and “District 299: The Chicago Schools Blog” (sponsored by the Chicago Tribune). During 2008-2009, Russo was a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University.

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