Youth Connection charter set to fire teachers, union cries foul

May 30, 2012

Two days after staff at Youth Connection Leadership Academy in Bronzeville told the school they wanted a union, they received letters saying a CPS crackdown on charter performance had put their school up for possible closure or restructuring.

Now, the charter school union Chicago Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff (Chicago ACTS) has filed an unfair labor practice charge with the Illinois Educational Labor Relations Board. 

In its complaint, filed May 25 with the labor board, the union argues that Youth Connection is closing the school in retaliation for teachers unionizing.

“It certainly seems strange that they were offered jobs, then they unionized, then suddenly they lost their jobs a day later,” says Brian Harris, the president of Chicago ACTS and a special education teacher at Chicago International Charter School – Northtown.

But Youth Connection Charter School officials say the timing was a coincidence, and that teachers at another campus – Howard Area Leadership Academy, which Youth Connection put on probation a year ago – also should have been notified about closure and restructuring.

“That timeline happens to be coincidental with our timeline of looking at our campuses. We support our teachers’ decision” to unionize, Youth Connection Deputy Education Officer Steven Torres says.

The Youth Connection Charter School board will decide at its Thursday night meeting whether to close those two campuses, restructure them, or do something else. Youth Connection operates alternative schools that serve dropouts.

Sheila Venson, executive director of Youth Connection Charter School, says the district’s get-tough approach has forced her to take action.

The school’s charter was renewed in March, but for three years, not the usual five. And, Venson says, it stipulates that any campuses that are still failing by September 2014 will be subject to closure by CPS. If that happens, Youth Connection won’t be able to take back the charter seats it loses.

What’s more, Venson says, the district’s criteria are unclear for what constitutes a failing school. “Interpreting it ourselves, the two schools that didn’t make the cut point would be those two,” Venson says.

CPS spokeswoman Marielle Sainvilus confirmed that under Youth Connection’s contract, “CPS reserves the right to close any (Youth Connection) campus that does not meet the outlined performance targets.”

She added: “(Youth Connection) leadership made the decision on their own to take action on the Youth Connection Leadership Academy campus.”


Lydia Merrill, who teaches art at Youth Connection Leadership Academy, says the school’s 20 teachers and staff wanted a union to give them a voice in school policies.

“We are on the front lines with the students, and we wish we had more of a say in what changes are being implemented with regards to the curriculum,” Merrill says.

During her four years at the school, she says, there have been numerous curricula and scheduling changes. She believes the school’s 180 students need more consistency.

 “Our biggest fight is keeping the school open,” Merrill adds. “The need for stability is huge with the population we work with. A closure like this would be really devastating to a lot of them.”

She recalls some teachers had speculated since the March board meeting, when CPS shortened the length of Youth Connection’s charter to three years, that school closures might happen down the road. But there was no more specific information until the letter landed in staff members’ mailboxes.

“The Performance Data on Youth Connection Leadership Academy was recently compiled and analyzed. The retention and attendance numbers for YCLA do not meet the required performance,” Venson wrote in the letter, dated May 22.  “No Letter of Intent to continue to work at YCLA for the 2012-2013 school year will be honored.”

The letter went on to say that the school was being recommended for closure or restructuring at Thursday’s board meeting “as a result of the conditions for renewal being required by CPS” and the school’s performance data.

Youth Connection Leadership Academy is the thirteenth charter school campus in the city to be unionized.

Three other Youth Connection campuses – Rudy Lozano Leadership Academy, Latino Youth High School, and Howard Area Leadership Academy – were the most recent charter school campuses to join Chicago ACTS, and they did so about a year and a half ago. A fourth Youth Connection campus, Antonio Pantoja High School, unionized earlier when several other ASPIRA schools did so.

Harris says that management at Latino Youth High School has refused to negotiate with teachers since the school unionized. Chicago Math and Science Academy is taking the same approach, but has argued that Illinois education labor laws don’t apply to it. Teachers and administrators there are still waiting for a National Labor Relations Board hearing to yield a decision.

He credits unionization with reducing teachers’ course load at his school from six classes to five, as well as reducing class size.