After three years, ASPIRA’s Olney Charter High School says ‘yes’ to union

Decked out in blue for the school’s colors, teachers and staff at ASPIRA Olney Charter High School linked arms in the school’s empty cafeteria Thursday evening as a government agent tallied votes.

In a decision culminating three years of organizing, teachers at the high school voted 104 to 38 to form a union. The staff also decided to form one union for professional staff, which includes teachers, nurses and librarians among others, and non-professional staff. The latter category comprises truancy liaisons, mentor coordinators, transition assistants, administrative assistants.

“I’m blown away,” said Hannah Myers, who teaches English for Speakers of Other Languages and says she was  a “mover and shaker” in getting the union off the ground. “I’m really proud … We’ve had such perseverance over the last three years organizing.”

‘ASPIRA definitely came down on us hard’

In those three years, some teachers described an uphill battle toward this day. According to world history teacher Hanako Franz, “ASPIRA definitely came down hard on us” in the first year of organizing.

Franz said the school labeled teachers calling for a union “bullies,” and went so far as to violate national labor law by asking staff about their level of support for a union. “We had to file unfair labor practices, and it got really tense in the building,” she said.

She said the National Labor Relations Board upheld three of the four unfair labor practice complaints filed.

As recently as this week, Olney High teachers said school leaders shortened instruction time by three hours in a day, so that staff could attend mandatory meetings with consultants. These consultants, said Franz, “[told] us all the down sides about why we shouldn’t form a union.”

In response to the final tally, ASPIRA’s chief operating officer Thomas Darden responded via email:

“Throughout this process, we have always said that we would respect a vote of the Olney teachers and staff. Now that they have voted in favor of union representation, we will negotiate in good faith with them to reach a fair agreement. ASPIRA has served its community for over 45 years, and our community can rest assured that we will negotiate with the best interest of our students in mind.”

According to the ASPIRA Pennsylvania website, this state’s branch formed in 1969 to serve “high-risk youth” in North Philadelphia and founded its first charter school in 1998. The branch now operates five charter schools in North Philadelphia neighborhoods.

In recent years, the School District of Philadelphia has leaned on ASPIRA to operate renaissance charters in place of former district-run neighborhood schools, but has since backpedaled. The District is now asking ASPIRA’s leadership to change some of its administrative and financial practices, or risk losing their charters.

‘A precedent for charter schools across the nation’

Olney now joins a burgeoning number of  charter school unions in Los Angeles, New York, Chicago and Cleveland. But Myers said this vote could be a turning point.

“We’re the largest charter school on the East Coast to form a union,” she said. “We’re setting a precedent for charter schools across the nation.”

Olney is the eighth charter school in Philadelphia to vote to organize. The other seven are Multi-Cultural Academy, New Media Technology Charter School, Delaware Valley Charter High School, West Oak Lane Charter School, Khepera Charter School, Wakisha Charter School and Germantown Settlement Charter School. The District voted to close Germantown Settlement in 2009. This year, Wakisha’s leadership closed that school abruptly, citing dwindling enrollment and staff. 

All of Philadelphia’s current charter school unions – minus Multi-Cultural Academy – fall under the purview of an offshoot of the state’s branch of the American Federation of Teachers, called the Alliance of Charter School Employees (ACSE).

Another ASPIRA school, John B. Stetson Charter middle school in Kensington, filed Monday to organize under new NLRB rules which promise a faster turnaround. Organizers requested a vote date of May 12.

Correction: An earlier version of the story under-represented number of existing charter unions in Philadelphia.

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