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ASPIRA Charter Teachers Vote Overwhelmingly to Strike

Posted by Admin On February - 28 - 2017

Educators cite management failures in accountability, transparency, classroom support as basis for authorizing what would be first strike of charter school network in U.S. history.


CHICAGO, IL – At a boisterous picket and rally, educators at ASPIRA’s four charter schools announced the results of their strike vote this afternoon: 93 of the bargaining unit’s 102 members voted — and 92 of those voting cast a ballot to strike. The overwhelming support for a strike could put educators on the picket line should negotiations with top management remain at an impasse.


“We love our schools and we don’t want to strike, but we will if that’s what it takes to improve conditions in our classrooms,” said Marines Martinez, acting president of ACE — A Council of Educators — the ASPIRA charter network’s council in ChiACTS 4343, the parent union for Chicago’s charter school workers. “Teachers acknowledge the hard work of our principals, as well — who struggle to balance the mismanagement of Aspira and provide the necessary support for our students. Our Aspira schools are great schools because together, all of us — principals, vice principals, teachers, mentors, advisors, and support staff — strive to provide the best education we can for our students. There’s too much at stake for our students and our larger communities not to take a stand for the quality of education in our classrooms.”


The educators announced the strike vote at a spirited rally in front of the joint campuses of Aspira Early College and Antonia Pantoja High Schools — the latter named for ASPIRA’s revered founder and advocate of empowerment for the nation’s Latinos, particularly Puerto Ricans. The schools at north Pulaski and Belmont have an overwhelmingly Latino and low-income student base, and while ASPIRA was originally founded in the early 1960s to support the aspirations of Puerto Ricans, a growing number of the four schools’ students come from families who hail from Mexico, Central America and beyond.


“We work at ASPIRA schools because we believe in the ASPIRA mission,” said Tito Rodriguez, who joined ASPIRA’s youth project as a student ‘aspirante’ at Roberto Clemente High School — then went on to serve the charter network as a teacher, a principal and now a counselor. “It’s heartbreaking to see the non-profit’s vision for our community’s youth undermined by irresponsible management and lack of accountability, and if it takes a strike to be able to guarantee them the quality education they deserve, we’ll be on the picket lines.”


ASPIRA’s four publicly funded Chicago charter schools serve roughly 1,800 mostly Latino students, and their teachers have been negotiating for a new contract for almost ten months. But negotiations have stalled over lack of transparency and accountability in finances and floundering leadership at the network’s most senior levels — with that management chaos and indifference at the top undermining conditions in classrooms. Union proposals also address the length of the school day and year. Aspira’s school day is 45-60 minutes longer than that in Chicago public schools: one hour longer for elementary schools and 45 minutes longer at the high school level. Educators have also proposed shortening the school year, which is currently one full week longer than the school year in Chicago’s public schools.


ASPIRA spends roughly 60% more on overhead, as opposed to instruction, than the average for Chicago’s public charter schools. This year, ASPIRA will spend more than 40% of its budget on “overhead”, including senior staff salary, compared to a Chicago charter school average of roughly 25%. But chronic administrative ineffectiveness and instability have dovetailed with poor conditions at ASPIRA’s four schools, whose teachers and frontline staff have been forced to add student recruitment and fundraising for classroom needs to their growing list of non-classroom responsibilities at the same time that teacher retention and a lack of classroom resources has spiked.


ASPIRA’s educators have also historically taken less in pay and compensation than their peers at other public schools. A teacher at ASPIRA with a Masters degree and five years of experience earns the same as a teacher with a Bachelor’s degree just out of college at CPS. But economic issues are not the only — or even the primary — concern for the educators who took today’s strike vote.


Many schools have had vacant positions since the beginning of the school year. 20% of Antonia Pantoja High School’s teachers are substitutes — underscoring a growing crisis in retaining qualified, committed teachers. Students at ABF lack the resources to conduct science experiments in their science lab. ESL teaching slots remain vacant, programs for special education students are not in compliance with ISBE standards at the same time that the percentage of students with IEPs — individualized education programs — is increasing, music programs and other extracurricular activities at Haugan are being cut, and students across the system are not getting the English language learning support they need — a critical abandonment of Aspira’s founding mission to serve the Hispanic community.  


Classrooms go days without being cleaned. Bathrooms lack toilet paper, handsoap and paper towels, while some toilets have been unusable since last year and building leaks stain school walls. Poor facility maintenance deters potential students and their parents, while many teachers clean their own classrooms in a desperate bid to improve conditions for their students. Some educators have resorted to GoFundMe campaigns to raise support for school projects and field trips.


Educators lay blame for the charter network’s poor management squarely at the feet of ASPIRA Inc. board chair Fernando Grillo, who has led the non-profit for the last seven years. In the last 6 weeks alone, the charter network’s CEO and Chief Academic Officer have been removed, only one school has the same principal and vice principal who began the school year, and the system’s COO — who had essentially been running the charter school network — recently resigned.


“Our teachers and educational staff are the backbone of Chicago’s charter schools, and ASPIRA educators have taken this serious step today because they feel they must to protect their classrooms,” said ChiACTS Local 4343 president Chris Baehrend. “Our educators want to be in the classroom, where we belong — but if it takes a strike to win improvements at the top that will transform conditions for our young people and put ASPIRA’s schools on the right track, we’ll be on the picket line.”


The union resumes bargaining with the ASPIRA board on Thursday.


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