Of the 306 charter schools operating in Michigan this year — the highest number yet — only three have staffs that are organized. Add that to the fact that nearly 80 percent of Michigan's charter school operators are for-profit — Hamadeh is one of them — and a picture is painted of a system where voice and dissent can be stamped out.
More fascinating is how this has been normalized.
"What's the story? I fail to see an issue with (at-will) employees being dismissed. No federal (or) state laws were violated," Universal's hired public relations consultant, Mario Morrow, says in an email to MT when asked for an interview with Hamadeh. The CEO declined the request.
While Morrow is correct no law has been broken — as far as we can tell, the teachers still don't know why they were fired — questions remain as to how this secrecy fosters confidence and trust among other teachers, parents, and ultimately students. And most importantly, where's the accountability to ensure decisions are truly being made with students in mind?
IN LATE MARCH , Hakim found out that Etab's transcript had been updated. The three credits it said she still needed when she was pushed out in November were now completed. Itayem credits the attorney she hired for the change.
When Hakim, Itayem, and another parent, Conseulo Ruiz, gathered to discuss the news, the sentiment was bittersweet. While the transcript technically allows Etab to receive her high school diploma, what she says she also needs and wants is support from teachers and the school community. For more than six months, she's languished at home, convinced the incident meant there was something wrong with her.
"I sleep upstairs and she sleeps downstairs. Every half-hour I am up and down the stairs. I want to make sure she is OK," Hakim says, explaining how for days after leaving the school Etab wouldn't leave her bedroom.
The news that she could suddenly get her diploma was welcomed by Etab's father, but it also felt like an empty victory. The actual rewards of a complete education were missing.
The school, via Morrow, declined to comment on Etab's case or their policies for students older than 18 citing the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act.
While her family and friends believe that the school should have allowed Etab to stay in school, their main contention is not so much with the fact that she was pushed out, but rather with the way it was happened."I was so afraid Etab might do something to her health," the family friend Said says. "The school flipped this family upside down, who don't know what the rules are and don't know their rights. It's a nasty way to do business, but this isn't supposed to be business, it's education."
For the students still at Universal, school, for many, has become insufferable.
"My teachers have been switched, I was trying to learn every single day, but we're doing the same things and I am just confused," Jamillah Mana, an eighth-grader, said at the school's March board meeting. "When I go to the school, I feel like I am in a prison, or caged in because I don't get the education I need."
That feeling of instability and hopelessness was reiterated at the same March meeting when one of the substitutes stood to talk. "I had a breakdown because I could not take subbing. I could not control the classroom. When you keep moving teachers, the kids don't behave as well," she says.
"They need one person to behave for. When you keep switching or put in a sub, they don't behave for the sub. They need that one figure that they are good for. I just — I couldn't do it anymore."
For the part of the fired teachers, in March Michigan ACTS, the charter-organizing arm of the American Federation of Teachers Michigan, filed charges, on behalf of the teachers, with the National Labor Relations board against both Universal Academy and Hamadeh Educational Services.
The charges allege that the school and management company fired the teachers "because of their union and protected concerted activities" such as the January board meeting where they spoke up with concerns.
"We want to set a precedent for other colleagues still at Universal to continue to work in the best interest of kids by collaborating with other teachers, speaking up at board meetings, even writing emails to administration," says Yassine.
While none of the eight teachers hope to return to the school, they do want to make it a better place for their former students and colleagues. More significantly they hope their case will have reverberating effects on Michigan's charter sector at large.
"We know we're not alone," says Leslie, who has since started working at a Detroit Public School. "We want teachers at Universal Academy and other charters to know their rights. Being an "at-will" employee doesn't mean you can be freely intimidated or retaliated against."
This post has been updated to include information about the charges that have been filed with the NLRB against the school and management company.