Thirty-three out of the 34 staff members at the “game-like learning” junior high school, which centers its curriculum around systems-thinking and game design, announced publicly last month that they want to unionize in order to have a legal voice and actively participate in the school community's decision-making processes.
The charter school's staff are organizing a union "to negotiate a legally-binding contract with consistent, fair and public guidelines for evaluation, support and pay that will serve both to retain and recruit qualified and experienced teachers," the ChicagoQuest faculty members said in their mission statement delivered to school leaders last month.
“I want to form a union, because teachers and staff will do their best work if they have the safety and job security to take risks, push their practice, and be open about their needs and strengths," ChicagoQuest teacher Luke Carman, who teaches 6th and 8th graders, said in a statement announcing the staff's organizing effort. "Having a union will allow all parties at ChicagoQuest to be more honest, concrete, and accountable, which will directly benefit our students.”
Although charter schools are mostly taxpayer financed, its teachers and staff are not part of the Chicago Teachers Union. The faculty at ChicagoQuest, 1443 N. Ogden Ave., want to unionize under the umbrella of the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff Local 4343 (Chicago ACTS), an affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) and the Illinois Federation of Teachers (IFT).
Currently, Chicago ACTS has nearly 900 members, representing 23 percent of all teachers and staff at charter schools in Chicago. More recently, Chicago ACTS became the bargaining agent for teachers at 13 schools run by the United Neighborhood Organization (UNO), the biggest charter operator in Illinois.
Chicago ACTS was founded in 2009 when educators at three other CICS campuses — Ellison, Northtown Academy and Wrightwood — formed the first charter school teacher union in Chicago.
On its website, the CICS charter network says it operates a total of 15 Chicago-based campuses and one in Rockford, collectively serving some 9,200 students. CICS has a contract with the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) district, but the Ellison, Wrightwood, and Northtown Academy campuses are actually managed by the educational management organization Civitas Schools, a wholly owned subsidiary of CICS.
Meanwhile, the school management company Civitas Education Partners provides the "back office supports" for CICS' ChicagoQuest, Ellison, Northtown and Wrightwood campuses. ChicagoQuest Schools, however, is considered the employer of the ChicagoQuest campus.
Civitas Schools' CEO Stacy Beardsley said Civitas Schools and ChicagoQuest Schools hold separate contracts with Civitas Education Partners, one for the three Civitas-operated CICS schools and one for CICS ChicagoQuest, "to manage these campuses and execute finance, operations, human capital and academic support for these campus per these contractual agreements."
Chicago ACTS President Brian Harris said he believes the motivation behind the separate contract arrangement was to prevent teachers and staff at ChicagoQuest, which opened in September 2011, from being part of the existing union contract with Civitas covering teachers at CICS' Ellison, Northtown and Wrightwood campuses.
"We all consider ourselves to be Civitas teachers," Harris said. "We feel we should be under the same contract ... all Civitas teachers need a voice."
Carman said ChicagoQuest has seen a lot of teacher turnover since the campus opened, which he said has led to a level of instability at the school. Teacher retention is especially important at a school like ChicagoQuest, as its instructors have to be highly trained in Common Core standards and able to develop curriculum that integrates technology, game-like learning and other systems-thinking concepts.
Carman, for example, teaches a "Code Worlds" course that combines math and writing. Developing teaching skills that help to drive the school's vision and mission "doesn't happen overnight," Carman explained. He noted that ChicagoQuest's sister school, Quest to Learn in New York City, has seen greater teacher retention and, as a result, a stronger school culture because its teachers are unionized.
ChicagoQuest, which currently serves grades 6 through 9, also lacks a public and consistent teacher evaluation process, according to organizers. Teachers and staff members, including game designers and special education aides, are constantly "looking over their shoulders" because they can be fired at any time, Carman said.
"When teachers and staff feel secure in their positions, they can focus fearlessly on what they should: ChicagoQuest’s students," the ChicagoQuest faculty added in their mission statement.
The organizers are specifically demanding that ChicagoQuest, Civitas and CICS voluntarily recognize their union and bargain under the existing terms of the Civitas union contract, with ChicagoQuest specific addenda.
In a written statement to Progress Illinois, Beardsley of Civitas Schools said, "ChicagoQuest Schools respects the right of the ChicagoQuest teachers to unionize and is in early conversation with the union to define a response to the request to recognize the teachers at CICS ChicagoQuest."
"ChicagoQuest Schools has made no decision at this time," she added.
If the union is not voluntarily recognized by the employer, the next step for ChicagoQuest teachers and staff would be to hold a unionization vote, which could either be a quick and smooth process without "teacher intimidation" or one that management drags out for years, Harris explained.
Carman added that ChicagoQuest's staff members are prepared to provide school leaders with "all documents necessary to legally form a union."
"Our union will exist," he stressed.
Additionally, ChicagoQuest staffers want CICS to agree to terms for future union organizing and bargaining at other CICS schools.
That last demand is important, Harris said, because charter school teachers in general often feel "terrified that they're going to be fired" if they participate in union organizing.
"The charter school movement was founded to deny teachers their labor rights," he continued. "Nobody goes into the charter schools thinking their boss is in favor of a union."
A CICS representative said the charter network had no comment. A ChicagoQuest administrator could not be reached for comment.
Photo courtesy of Chicago ACTS