Quick Hit Matthew Blake Thursday May 31st, 2012, 9:43pm

Newly Unionized Chicago Charter School Stays Open For Now (UPDATED)

In an unfolding dispute that reflects the larger issues surrounding charter schools and teachers unions in Chicago, a South Side charter, whose teachers were told their school was closing one day after they voted to unionize, will stay open for now.

At a meeting today of the Youth Connection Charter School (YCCS) board, a network of 24 alternative high schools in Chicago, board members postponed a vote on a plan to close or restructure Youth Connection Leadership Academy (YCLA) in the Bronzeville neighborhood. The board pledged to hold the vote in their meeting next month.

The decision follows an unfair labor practice complaint * the Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff filed May 25 – the union says the closing is unlawful retaliation.

Teachers voted to unionize May 21, and one day later Sheila Vincent, executive director of YCCS, notified teachers in a letter that the school was closing because, “The retention and attendance numbers for YCLA do no meet the required performance.”

Vincent stated that the timing of the letter was, in fact, an unhappy coincidence.

YCCS, Vincent stressed at the meeting, is undergoing intense negotiations with the Chicago Public Schools over their charter, and CPS wants the charter school network to shut down poorly performing schools. Besides YCLA, the network also will vote next month on whether to close Howard Area Leadership Academy in the Rogers Park neighborhood.

CPS typically gives charter school networks five-year charters. But CPS extended a three-year charter to YCCS, with the parties having until the end of July to negotiate the terms.

YCCS administrators and also teachers at YCLA and Howard Area Leadership Academy slammed CPS for using measures like test scores to evaluate their alternative schools, who take in students often kicked out of other schools.

Speakers pointed out that many of their students have special needs, are functionally illiterate, and deal with unsettled families.

“We do not have the luxury of choosing students with good test scores and ideal home situations,” said Nicole Durham, a teacher at YCLA.

Also, administrators and teachers alike acknowledge that CPS could impose new restrictions on the charter – leading to more recommended school closings. Asked by a board member when they ought to panic, Vincent replied, “We should be panicking now.”

A call to CPS late this afternoon was not returned. CPS told Catalyst Chicago yesterday that they reserve the right to close YCCS schools that do not meet performance targets.

With their school still open, YCLA teachers and the charter school union will move forward with their complaint filed with the Illinois Education and Labor Relations Board, * but will also continue negotiations with YCCS. “We hope that we can come to a settlement that will keep these teachers in their jobs and these students in their schools,” says Leah Raffanti, an organizer with the charter school union.

Including YCLA, the union – which is affiliated with the Chicago Teachers Union and its parent organization, the American Federation of Teachers – has organized 13 of the city’s 85 charter schools, including four YCCS schools. Union President Brian Harris said that each of these was a bitter fight.

“Every single time we organize, we face resistance from the employer,” Harris said. “Our experience is something that needs to be brought into the debate about charter schools in Chicago.”

* UPDATE 1 (6/1/12) 10:15 a.m.: The charter school union has put on hold its unfair labor practice complaint. In a statement released last night, the union commended YCCS for postponing a vote to close the school. The union stated that it was continuing discussions with YCCS management and attorneys.

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