Almost eight years since Hurricane Katrina set the stage for sweeping education reform that radically weakened New Orleans teachers unions, one charter school board has decided to embrace its faculty’s decision to organize.
The Morris Jeff Community School board of directors unanimously voted Thursday to recognize a new local teachers’ union.
Formed with the support of 94 percent of the school’s staff members, The Morris Jeff Association of Educators will be a union solely comprised of Morris Jeff Community School educators, according to terms discussed in the meeting.
Theirs is the first charter teachers group to formally organize since the Orleans Parish School Board decided not to renew a collective bargaining agreement for the city’s schools after Hurricane Katrina.
“We are driven by two, unwavering goals,” teacher Aaron Forbes told the board as he spoke on behalf of teachers. “Providing the highest quality education to ensure all children achieve their maximum potential and transforming the landscape for teacher organization and development in New Orleans.”
Though the association plans to receive support from the Louisiana Association of Educators, one of the state’s teachers unions, it will not be considered the New Orleans chapter of LAE, organizers said.
The old union of choice, the United Teachers of New Orleans, has spoken on behalf of Recovery School District teachers and OPSB teachers in the years following Katrina, but has not represented any groups formally.
More than 20 teachers, parents and community members came Thursday night to stand in solidarity of the newly formed association.
After board members voted unanimously to approve the measure, teachers in attendance broke into applause.
The announcement comes about five months after the United Teachers of New Orleans requested teachers’ contact information from several New Orleans charter schools, saying that they wanted to try to organize those schools and spread the word about their professional development programs.
The faculty organizers at Morris Jeff did speak to UTNO about their plans, but decided that a relationship with LAE was a better fit, fourth grade teacher Rowan Shafer said.
“I have been a member of UTNO,” Shafer said. “But what we found was that LAE was more supportive of what we were willing to do.”
The association will be considered the Morris Jeff branch of LAE, said LAE UniServ director Grant Shreiner. Shreiner called the partnership a “totally new” structure.
“They are being treated like they are their own school district,” he said. “So if another charter school wants to do something, they’ll be a separate one.” A separate charter school union could be designed differently, depending on the school and the teachers’ goals, he said.
Although Shafer and the other teachers haven’t finalized all of their plans – such as whether they’ll actually craft an agreement that they’ll expect the board to uphold, and what that agreement will entail – they’ll be meeting with the board’s governance committee to flesh that out in the coming months.
The impetus for the union may surprise some. Second grade teacher Courtney Wilde said that this group was not birthed by unhappy teachers looking for change.
“We like our jobs,” she said.
Rather, she said, the union is a way for teachers to identify common classroom problems and work cooperatively towards solutions, to boost student achievement. Having a system that everyone has bought into and where everyone feels they can be heard is key to Morris Jeff’s sustainability, she said.
School leaders said they see the site-based, student-focused union as a model for other charter teachers looking to organize.
“I am very excited about this development,” board president Aesha Rasheed said. “We are brave.”
With 360 students and about 34 teachers today, Morris Jeff opened in the fall of 2010 with a distinct premise and mission, founding president Broderick Bagert said. The idea was that kids of all races and socioeconomic backgrounds can and should be able to attend school together, and that their parents, teachers, and the community would have a huge say in the process.
Bagert said Thursday that he hopes the creation of a union reveals once more that Morris Jeff is a trailblazer.
“One of the most striking prejudices in the ed reform movement right now is with teachers unions,” he said. While unions may have gotten a bad rep in the past, the Morris Jeff’s group’s mission is clearly different from that of the old model, he said.
Still, some school leaders expressed concerns.
“The perception of ‘union’ comes to mind, and what we don’t want is to have a negative association with a union, per se,” said board vice president Wanda Anderson-Guillaume.
She said that there may be ways for teachers to collaborate in Morris Jeff’s existing professional affiliations, such as the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools and the Eastbank Collaborative of Charter Schools.
Though Principal Patricia Perkins was supportive, she cautioned against an affiliation with an outside organization.
“I feel that the teachers need to drive this and not let some outside agenda come in and take precedence,” she said.
For decades before Katrina and New Orleans’ explosive charter school reform, the city’s teachers unions were polarizing forces that critics believe stifled schools’ autonomy and left principals helpless to rid their campuses of bad teachers.
Barbara MacPhee, the former principal of the New Orleans Charter Science and Mathematics High School, said she remembers it well. She said the new development at Morris Jeff “is very interesting” and that she looks forward to seeing how it shakes out.
“All I want in an organization … is that we stop this adversarial hostile relationship that so characterized the former union, and that there be equal representation for the concerns of the students as well as of the teachers,” she said.