Thursday, March 12, 2009 | Less than a year after a Barrio Logan charter school discarded its director and cut loose nearly all of its teachers with little warning, teachers in its system of schools are taking their first steps toward forming a union.

Six out of eight teachers at King/Chavez Arts Academy were dismissed last summer, shortly after its director was replaced. The jilted teachers, many of them relatively new to teaching, said they received little explanation of why they were let go.

Tim Wolf, the chief executive officer who oversees the five King/Chavez schools, declined to explain at the time why the teachers were dismissed but alluded to the lower scores of the Arts Academy. Wolf declined to comment for this article.

The exodus of teachers aggravated some parents who pulled their children out of the school. It suffered a significant drop in enrollment at the beginning of this year, while other King/Chavez schools saw their numbers increase.

“If the teachers weren’t going to be there, there was no point in being there anymore,” said Leticia Guadarrama, a Barrio Logan resident who pulled her children out of the school. “Now they go to a different charter school.”

It also made many of the remaining teachers fearful of losing their jobs, especially after another teacher from the same school was fired in the middle of this year. Some were galled that the principals and administrators judging them had not been classroom teachers themselves. So they kicked off a union drive across all five — soon to be six — of the King/Chavez schools.

Thus far the teachers have formed an organizing committee and are working with the San Diego Education Association, the union that represents teachers in San Diego Unified, to sway a majority of the schools’ teachers. Less formal efforts to pin down procedures for teacher evaluation are also underway at the school, but some teachers were skeptical that those policies would translate into real protection for employees. All of the current teachers interviewed declined to be quoted by name in this story, fearing retribution from their administrators.

It is a dramatic illustration of the tradeoffs that teachers face when choosing to forgo a union and its protections for the freedoms of a charter school. And it touches on the sensitive question of how to treat teachers, who is to blame, and what needs to change when schools fall short of their goals. One board member believes that the overhaul, while painful, will not ultimately hurt the school.

“We were concerned about morale during the upheaval, but what happened on balance is very positive,” said King/Chavez board member Celia Brewer, who touted the development of new policies at the school. But when it comes to changing student achievement, she said, “Sometimes you don’t have a sense until a year or two.”

King/Chavez is a system of five schools in Barrio Logan formed by merging an existing charter school — Chavez Academy of Excellence — with a struggling public school named King Elementary that converted into a charter and split into three small academies. Its mission is to help students excel in academics, athletics and the arts from “the foundation of love.” It later added another school, plans to open its sixth school in the fall, and is promoted by the California Charter Schools Association as an example for other charters.

Charter schools are independently run with public funding and limited oversight from school districts. They are free from the rules that gird school districts such as San Diego Unified, are directed by their own boards and most of them are not unionized.

Many charters prize their freedoms from union rules, such as being able to hire teachers without regard to seniority and fire them efficiently if they are ineffective. It is typically easier to dismiss teachers at charter schools than at unionized schools, where terminating a tenured teacher can take as long as two years and is extremely rare.

“These teachers are much more exposed to unfair treatment than teachers in the San Diego Education Association,” said Peter Zschiesche, founding director of the Employee Rights Center, a group that advocates for employees who are not unionized. “Most people think there has to be some law that says, ‘You’ve got to treat me fairly,’ and there isn’t.”

Arguing against the dismissals was even more difficult for King/Chavez teachers because they were not technically fired, Zschiesche said. They were merely not renewed. Teachers said Wolf had not signed their annual contracts when they were told to leave.

If teachers sign off and the King/Chavez schools are unionized, they would become part of an emerging trend. While unionized charters are still an anomaly, more charters are unionizing as workplace issues erupt, said Betheny Gross, a senior researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington. Some are unionized from the start.

“It is a balancing act between school flexibility and providing teachers with some stability around their job description, some security around their jobs, and some clarity around what it is they’re going to be asked to do,” Gross said.

Though several King/Chavez schools have struggled to meet the rising bar of No Child Left Behind testing targets, the Arts Academy has struggled harder than others. While its scores rose every year and far exceed the scores at the defunct King Elementary, they fell short of almost all of the other King/Chavez schools, some of which now rank in the top echelons of demographically similar schools statewide.

“While the Arts Academy has made great strides in recent years, it hasn’t been achieving academic success consistent with the academic standards,” Wolf said in an interview last July. “When that happens, we are not afraid to make changes.”

Some of the teachers who were jettisoned by the school said they knew that test scores were a problem, but did not get guidance on how to change their teaching to improve student achievement. Others felt they were unfairly blamed for factors beyond their control.

“As far as I knew I was doing a great job,” said Lisa Bellon, who worked as a guided reading coordinator at the school.

Charter school teachers tend to be younger and less experienced than teachers in traditional schools, and the King/Chavez system is no exception. While research on teacher quality has shown that experience is no guarantee that a teacher will be better or worse, Cousland, a new teacher, felt she needed more guidance to succeed. She said the school was happy to pay for conferences and “amazing training,” but she lacked mentors and peer coaches.

“Was I a perfect teacher? No. Was I still learning? Yes,” she said. “I admit I have faults.”

Many of the King/Chavez administrators were likewise new to leading schools or came from backgrounds other than teaching.

It is common in charter schools to bring in outsiders to shake up the system and challenge its norms: Wolf previously worked as a psychotherapist before becoming a consultant to private and charter schools and eventually to the charter school offices of San Diego Unified before stepping in to lead King/Chavez, according to his resume. The principal who took over the Arts Academy and dismissed most of its teachers, Scott Worthing, used to be the physical education teacher at the neighboring Athletics Academy.

But some teachers questioned how they could be evaluated fairly and consistently by administrators who did not know their subjects or had never taught classes of their own. Worthing did not respond to an e-mail and was not available for an interview on Thursday.

“The CEO hired really new, fresh administrators and that was part of the problem,” said Yvonne Moultrie, another teacher who was cut last summer. “It still is a problem at the school. Although they are awesome people and they really try their best, most of them have not been classroom teachers.”

As teachers talk over the idea of unions, they are weighing what could be major changes in how King/Chavez educators are hired, fired or evaluated. But Brewer, the King/Chavez board member, said she didn’t believe that having a union — or not having one — would change the underlying factors that made the schools thrive.

“As long as the identity of the school remains and the philosophy of the school remains,” she said, “I think that we can be successful.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

Dagny Salas was web editor at Voice of San Diego from 2010 to 2013. She was an investigative fellow at VOSD from 2009 to 2010.

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