Wednesday, May 25, 2016

Community demands accountability at the Detroit charter school where eight teachers were fired

Posted By on Wed, May 25, 2016 at 12:47 PM

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Parents, teachers, students, and members of the Michigan Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff gathered at the Tuesday board meeting for Universal Academy, a charter school on Detroit's west side, where eight teachers were fired in February without cause or notice. 

We detailed the questionable terminations in our April 20 cover story "Begging for Answers." The gathering Tuesday aimed to follow up on the chaos that has ensued in the wake of the educators' absence. 

"Because the state of Michigan has incredibly weak accountability for charters, we know that it's up to the board and the community to achieve change at UA," Asil Yassine, one of eight teachers who were fired, told MT before the meeting. "The community is all in — now we're looking at the board and (school management company Hamadeh Educational Services) leadership to do their job."

The rally's goals were two-pronged, Yassine said: Ask the board to adopt a resolution acknowledging that terminating the teachers hurt school culture and also push them to ensure teachers won't be retaliated against if they speak up in the future (six of the fired teachers had attended a board meeting two weeks before they were terminated).

The resolution was presented during the public comments section of the board meeting by former teacher Phil Leslie, and was followed by a number of testimonies by other terminated teachers.

“I became a teacher to advocate for my students — 9-year-olds have a hard time speaking on their behalf,” said former third grade teacher Jacquelyn Sloan who was in her third year teaching at Universal when she was terminated in February. Sloan went on to describe how her termination not only affected her, but the life outcomes and opportunities of her students.

“The person that replaced me and my third grade classroom was not highly qualified; she is not a certified teacher,” said Sloan, who said her students only recently got a certified teacher in the room in form of a long-term substitute. “I have a big problem with this. If you say you have highly qualified staff in every single one of your classrooms, you should hold to that.”

Students also spoke at the board meeting, voicing frustrations with how the school culture has shifted dramatically since the firings.

“Now we have teachers who aren’t even certified, we have teachers who don’t care what you do,” said one 11th grade student, who later explained that inexperienced educators lack control of the classrooms. “They don’t care and literally threaten us with suspensions and referrals.”

Following a number of comments, Nate Walker of the American Federation of Teachers spoke, imploring the board to call the resolution, presented earlier by Leslie, to a vote that evening.

“Can we have your word that you’ll take it to a vote and consider this resolution this evening?” asked Walker.

“Would you like to say anything else?” responded board secretary Nuha Fakih, not acknowledging the request. 

"No, it’s a charge to the board," responded Walker. "There is a decision in front of you to at least rectify the decision sitting in front of you the last couple of months. The demand is simple, the demand is not bring them back carte blanche, the demand is respect workers rights, and teachers' rights and learning conditions moving forward. The language is there, simple, take it to a vote."

Following Walker's statement teachers, parents and students in attendance began chanting "Take the vote," at which point a security guard came forward to quell the commotion. 

“Please respect the meeting, the board would like to continue on with its meeting,” Fakih said, not addressing whether or not the board would acknowledge the resolution.

Following one more public comment from former teacher Yassine, Fakih announced that the board would be going on with their meeting, and the teachers, parents, students and Michigan ACTS representatives who came out left. “Shame on Hamadeh," they chanted as they made their way out the door. 

For the remainder of the meeting, which included the re-hiring of Hamadeh as the management company for the following year and a check-in with the school’s authorizer Oakland University, the board did not discuss the resolution or the comments made by the former teachers and students.  

When MT asked an Oakland University representative if the the authorizer had a comment, we were told, “No thank you,” by Karen Lloyd, associate director of the university’s Office of Public School Academies.

The board members were equally mum, referring us to the school’s hired public relations consultant Mario Morrow, who is also representing the management company Hamadeh Educational Services.

“They saw the resolution, they each took one, they read it and they’ll probably re-read it,” said Morrow, who explained that a response from the board may come at a later date. 

“In other places, in other countries that we’re too familiar with, people would not even have the opportunity to present themselves the way the teachers did today,” he continued. 

The National Labor Relations Board is investigating the termination of the teachers following a lawsuit that Michigan ACTS filed in March on behalf of the fired educators.

"NLRB decision is huge," Yassine told MT after the gathering. "We're going to need the public's help in continuing to apply pressure constantly so that Hamadeh isn't tempted to put this behind them and think everyone just forgot about it."

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