In the late 1980s, the labor leader Albert Shanker first articulated his vision of autonomous, teacher-formed “charter” schools. He lamented what he saw as a “lockstep” approach to K-12 education across the country that neglected the input of classroom teachers and failed to take into account students’ individual needs.
Now, the New York City affiliate that the late American Federation of Teachers chief once headed is picking up on his ideas in a spare wing of a junior high school. The United Federation of Teachers has started from scratch its very own charter school in a rough-and-tumble Brooklyn neighborhood.
“In some ways, we are confronting the same scenario that Shanker was talking about in the late ’80s,” said Randi Weingarten, the president of the 140,000-member UFT, the largest union local in the nation. “We have to get out of the yoke of the bureaucracy [that has] created this factory model, one-size-fits-all way of educating children.”
Opened this past September, the UFT Elementary Charter School has raised plenty of eyebrows. Critics have accused the union of hypocrisy, in part because of what many observers see as resistance to charter schools from teachers’ unions here and around the country. Most of the publicly funded but largely independent public schools are nonunionized, including those in New York state.
Critics also portray the union’s move as an attempt to burnish its image in hopes of organizing more charter schools. And they suggest that the union’s collective bargaining contract with the city, which the new school largely follows, is a major obstacle to innovation—a complaint that UFT leaders strongly dispute.
Still, the UFT is getting the benefit of the doubt for now from some groups and individuals who are typically at odds with them.
“I’m sure there is some political agenda,” said Eva Moskowitz, the former chairwoman of the New York City Council’s education committee, who has often clashed with the union. “But I’m sure there’s also an education agenda.”
Trying New Ideas
That education agenda contains echoes of the ideas Mr. Shanker espoused. In 1988, the union leader first wrote about his idea of a “charter” school, picking up on a phrase used by educator Ray Budde, who worked as a teacher, principal, and University of Massachusetts education professor.
“The purpose of charter schools is to try out new or revitalized ideas and to look for ways to vastly improve student learning,” Mr. Shanker wrote in the AFT’s weekly “Where We Stand” column.
As the charter school movement got under way in the early 1990s, Mr. Shanker began voicing misgivings about its direction, warning that it was no “cure-all” for problems in education and suggesting that some charter proponents aimed to “smash the public schools.”
In his initial writings on the subject, he called for “small, autonomous public schools” of choice set up by teams of six or more teachers. Key features included participatory decisionmaking, individualized instruction, and plenty of room for innovation.
The fledgling UFT charter school here emphasizes many of the same ideas. Each classroom has two teachers, who tailor their approach to different types of students. Teachers are given a voice in school decisionmaking. Parents, too, are expected to take an active role in their children’s schooling, and must sign partnership agreements with the school. Beyond academics, the union is trying to build a school culture that fosters core values, such as responsibility and respect, among students.
The school’s board includes three parents, three teachers, three community members, three union staff members, and school leader Rita Danis.
“The whole atmosphere is open,” said Roxroy Herrera, whose daughter attends the UFT charter. “You know what’s going on, you feel involved in the whole process, and that’s a big difference from the regular public school.”
Not surprisingly, with the union at the helm, the school also encourages teacher involvement in a range of areas, from choosing instructional strategies and designing curricula to helping shape core aspects of the school culture.
“I wanted to be part of something that was new and different,” said Laura A. Kinsel, a 27-year-old kindergarten teacher at the school. “I feel like we do have a say, we do have a chance to voice our opinions.”
Said Sonia Ferreira, 28, who team-teaches with Ms. Kinsel: “It’s like we’re all little pioneers.”
Sense of Community
The UFT charter school is housed in space at a four-story, brown-brick junior high in the East New York section of Brooklyn that the city school system made available largely rent-free. It offers kindergarten and 1st grade to nearly 150 pupils this year and will eventually expand to grade 5, with a total of 450 students. The union has plans to open a secondary charter school, possibly next fall, that would eventually serve grades 6-12.
Nearly all the school’s students are members of minority groups, and most come from disadvantaged backgrounds, with four in five eligible for a free or reduced-price lunch.
On a recent morning, the school day got started as usual with a “community meeting,” with children seated along a hallway.
“Good morning, citizens,” declared 1st grader Moses Medina, donning a red, white, and blue sash over his sweatshirt. “Good morning, Moses,” they replied. Moments later, the students recited together: “We’re here to be the best. We’re a community, community. Our own school family, family. …”
“It’s part to strengthen our culture; it’s part to show that community is really important,” Ms. Danis said of the school’s daily morning meeting. “For some [children], you’re differentiating street culture from school culture.”
The school has adopted what it calls the CREST code for students, which is constantly reinforced. The acronym stands for community, respect, excellence, scholarship, and trustworthiness.
Staff members, for their part, spend a lot of time fine-tuning their instructional practices. Ms. Danis, 42, brings two decades of experience to the effort, both in teaching and professional development. “Her strength is in being a coach of teachers, and being a master teacher herself,” Ms. Weingarten said.
Ms. Danis’ title is school leader, not principal. “I think ‘principal,’ in our experience, has held a certain terminology and a certain action,” she said. “Everything I wanted to exhibit or be had nothing to do with being this person going around telling everybody what to do, just directing memos and handling the operations of the school, but was more focused in leading the educational efforts of the school.”
Besides Ms. Danis, the school has a business manager and a coordinator of operations and outreach. Also, the union hired Jonathan S. Gyurko away from his post as the director of the New York City system’s charter school office to be a special assistant for charter school development.
The UFT recently won a four-year, $1 million grant from the Los Angeles-based Broad Foundation for general operating expenses for the school. Charter schools in New York receive less state and local money than regular public schools.
On a recent day, Ms. Danis went from classroom to classroom, observing teachers and offering feedback, as she does each day. The school also has a UFT professional-development center on its premises.
With two teachers and about 25 pupils per class, the school is able to home in on individual children’s needs. During a recent kindergarten class, the two teachers split up to work on reading with groups of a half-dozen pupils each, while two other small groups worked independently. “I feel like I get to reach so many more kids here,” Ms. Kinsel, the kindergarten teacher, said.
Before deciding to start a charter school, Ms. Weingarten said, the union first
approached city school officials about running a set of schools within the district. But she said that effort was unsuccessful.
“The only way we could really build a school based upon a premise of collaborative relationships with parents and teachers, using best practices, and honoring a collective bargaining agreement was through the chartering process,” she said.
The union’s decision to open a charter school attracted attention from the get-go, and now that the school has opened, public interest has not flagged. “Anything that happens in this school is going to be magnified,” Ms. Weingarten said.
In December, the school captured headlines after a couple of children alleged that they had been made to clean feces from the restroom floor. Ms. Danis says the boys were making a mess in the room and that, to her knowledge, they were only cleaning up paper towels strewn on the floor.
Nonetheless, Ms. Weingarten spoke to the families and placed a disciplinary letter in Ms. Danis’ personnel file. She also hired a retired principal as an adviser to Ms. Danis, who apologized. “It was plastered on the pages of the newspapers,” Ms. Weingarten said of the incident. “No one will ever know whether there was any debris or waste under the paper in the bathroom that day.”
‘A Real Canard’
Even some of the UFT’s sometime rivals in the policy and political arenas have praise for its foray into the charter world. The union “has shown a great deal of commitment to this school,” said Peter Murphy, the policy director at the New York Charter Schools Association. “What the UFT charter represents in Brooklyn is the opposite of how the larger group behaves,” he added, referring to the state teachers’ union and its stance on charters.
“We have zero doubt that this school will be successful,” said David Ernst, the director of communications and research for the New York State School Boards Association.
Still, in many schools, union-backed rules are an obstacle to what’s best for students, he argued, citing those that make it hard to fire incompetent teachers and that limit districts’ ability to assign teachers.
Ms. Weingarten flatly rejects that view of such rules. “It is a real canard that a contract is an obstacle to education,” she said. “Maybe [this school] will help educate people who use that as an excuse.”
Teachers in the UFT charter school are part of the union’s collective bargaining agreement with the city, though the charter operates as its own local educational agency. As a result, Ms. Weingarten said, not all of the contract’s rules apply, such as those on teacher transfers. “You only have one school here,” she noted.
In any case, Ms. Weingarten argued, the UFT contract allows ample wiggle room for all city schools, if teachers and management collaborate. And she indicated that the UFT is hoping to unionize more charter schools. “A lot of teachers in charter schools want the same kind of fairness that union contracts [help ensure],” she said.
Sol Stern, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a New York City-based think tank that backs school choice, said he suspects a concern about potential erosion of union membership was one motivation behind the UFT’s experiment with charter schooling. He said he hoped union leaders’ experience running the new school would lead them to “start moderating their views on charter schools.”
“They’re worried about their members, ... so in a way part of what they’re trying to show is that you can operate a charter school under the union contract, and it doesn’t create obstacles towards a successful school,” he said. “So I think it’s a good idea. Let them try.”
Coverage of new schooling arrangements and classroom improvement efforts is supported by a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.
A version of this article appeared in the February 22, 2006 edition of Education Week as I A School Of Their Own