For the first time since more than a dozen of their colleagues were abruptly fired last month, current teachers at Opportunity Charter School spoke publicly about the administration’s response to their efforts to join the United Federation of Teachers.
A small group of the teachers joined UFT organizers outside of the school in Harlem this afternoon, carried signs and distributed fliers to passersby. They said the schools used a draconian lateness policy as cover to terminate teachers who voted to unionize earlier in the year.
Of the 15 staff members whose contracts were terminated last month, all but one voted pro-union.
The firings had a chilling effect on staff morale, said Jennifer Mitchell, a fourth year teacher.
“People don’t feel safe here. They don’t feel appreciated,” she said.
Mitchell, one of the longest-tenured teachers at the school, which opened in 2004, said the school had drifted from its founding mission to serve high need students.
“The school has changed dramatically since I started,” she said. “Now I feel like I work for a company, not a school.”
Much of the ire was focused on a rigid lateness policy that the teachers said has been inconsistently altered and enforced this year. Several former teachers lost their jobs because of the policy, which suspended teachers for a week without pay if they arrived at school after 7:45 a.m.
One of those teachers was Meg Fein, an English teacher. Fein said the school suspended her the week before her students took last year’s ELA exam. She asked the administration if she could come in anyway – without pay – to prepare her students for the exam, but was denied.
“Immediately before an exam, it’s beneficial to review everything. It’s fresh in their minds. It’s absolutely important,” said Fein.
“I think it had a hugely negative effect,” Fein added, referring to her students’ test scores.
Several of Fein’s supporters attended the protest, including Qays Sapp, a recent graduate of OCS, and his mother. Sapp is dyslexic and was reading on a third grade reading level when he entered Fein’s class.
“I had dyslexia and she took the time to help me after class,” Sapp said. “She really cared about her students.”
In the fall, Sapp will attend Bunker Hill Community College in Massachusetts.
School management, meanwhile, remained silent and have not spoken publicly since the staff voted in May. Even internally, administrators have not officially indicated a position on unionizing activities, said teacher Nayomi Reghay, who said she last interacted with them at a board meeting last month.
“I got the impression that they didn’t want to share anything that their lawyer hadn’t already scripted,” Reghay said.
In an awkward encounter today, one administrator, Emily Samuels, Director of Development at the school, took a flier from an organizer and smiled before she entered the school.
“We have no comment,” Samuels said.