First Person

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.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.