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L.A. charter staff reaches out to teachers union

Saying that things have changed at the celebrated campus, nearly 80% of faculty at the Accelerated School, near downtown, have turned in signature cards indicating a desire to join the UTLA.

February 09, 2009|Howard Blume

A teacher-driven effort to unionize a celebrated Los Angeles charter school has, for the first time, extended the reach of the powerful local teachers union into schools that have largely -- and purposely -- operated without representation.

Nearly 80% of teachers and other qualified staff members at The Accelerated School south of downtown have turned in pro-union signature cards, organizers said last week. A simple majority would be needed to make Accelerated's faculty the first from an independent charter to join forces with United Teachers Los Angeles, which is trying to expand its influence.

The teachers at Accelerated have questioned, among other things, hiring and evaluation decisions, which they say have become opaque and inconsistent, contrary to the school's tradition of openness and collaboration among parents, teachers and administrators.

"Teachers have said to us they are committed to Accelerated, their students, the parents and the community," said union president A.J. Duffy. "They don't want to leave. They just want to have some protections."

School officials declined to comment directly on the organizing drive, but a waiting list of 3,000 attests to the reputation of the 15-year-old school, which was Time magazine's elementary school of the year in 2001. Accelerated serves more than 1,300 preschool through 12th-grade students at four schools. Co-founder Johnathan Williams, who sits on the state Board of Education, ran unsuccessfully in 2007 for the Los Angeles Board of Education against an incumbent who relied primarily on the teachers union for campaign support.

Even though test scores at the largest of the schools rank in the top 20% of California campuses serving a similar population of low-income minority students, overall scores remain well below the state average, with 29.5% of students proficient in math and 37.3% proficient in English. And the school has entered its third year of "program improvement," the category for schools that face potential sanctions because they fall short of federal achievement targets.

Charters are public schools managed independently of a school district, free from some rules that govern traditional schools, including adherence to union contracts. There are 148 charters within the Los Angeles Unified School District -- the vast majority nonunion.

Charter operators say they have largely avoided unions to remain functionally nimble, which includes having the ability to replace ineffective teachers quickly. Local charters specifically have avoided the phone-book-sized UTLA contract. Even without that union's job protections, well-run charters have had no difficulty recruiting teachers, although some of the schools have high turnover.

"This school has done so well with the principal being in charge and having authority," said former L.A. Mayor Richard Riordan, a longtime charter-school supporter.

"It would be a sin to change that, but that doesn't mean I'm against the union organizing."

Charters now serve about 57,000 L.A. Unified students, more than 8% of the total.

In the past, UTLA had entirely ceded charter organizing to the California Teachers Assn. The state union, for example, works with Green Dot Public Schools, a charter organization that actively pursued union representation.

Such non-UTLA contracts are typically slimmer in size and job protections. Under the 22-page contract for the Camino Nuevo charter schools, for example, a teacher has the right to a 30-day "performance improvement plan" but can be dismissed after that period. Executive Director Ana Ponce, a founding teacher at Accelerated, said her teachers and administrators shared the goal of developing a union contract that would support student achievement.

She added that she would consider the UTLA standard contract a step backward.

The union's Duffy said it was too early to characterize what provisions an Accelerated contract would contain.

Union leaders have long criticized charter schools, but the union drive at Accelerated came at the instigation of that school's staff, which contacted the union in December.

"This school started with a vision, which was absolutely founded and based on real teacher-driven participation in the major education decisions at the school and real participation by parents," said Dori Miles, the UTLA representative for schools in the Accelerated area. "There's been a complete change."

Co-founder Kevin Sved declined to respond directly, saying that "everybody is in agreement as to what the ends should be, and that is supporting our kids in being successful."

In a statement, Accelerated board President Eric C. Johnson noted that state and federal guidelines to improve performance have "challenged all of us, including our teachers, in new and uncomfortable ways."

Teachers have talked of increased pressure to improve test scores, combined with narrowing a program rich in artistic and cultural offerings.

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