Educators gather to re-infuse progressive values into charters

Photo by Cara Metz. Green Dot Public Schools founder Steve Barr (on panel, second from left) answers a question while fellow panelists (from left) New York Charter Parents Association President Mona Davids, Central Park East school founder Deborah Meier and UFT President Michael Mulgrew and UFT Vice President Leo Casey, the panel moderator, look on.

By Micah Landau

After an Oct. 14 evening panel featuring UFT President Michael Mulgrew, celebrated educator Deborah Meier, Green Dot founder Steve Barr and parent advocate Mona Davids, the more than 100 charter school educators in attendance returned to UFT headquarters on Oct. 15 for a full day of workshops and panels on “building a progressive charter school movement.”

Sessions touched on a wide range of subjects — from the role of progressive leadership in New York City charter schools to how to create an effective learning environment for instruction in math and literacy — all capped off with a screening of the new documentary film “American Teacher.”

In a session on charter schools and educational justice, CUNY professor Michelle Fine argued that the once-progressive “small schools movement” had been captured by corporate interests but that unionized charter teachers can push back.

“You are the bridge over troubled waters,” she told them.

In another session, on teacher, parent and student voice in charters, John Parr, from Education Evolving, contrasted the direction taken by most charters in New York with their counterparts in Milwaukee, where many charter schools are unionized teacher-led cooperatives that actively encourage parent and student engagement. Parr encouraged New York City charters to adopt this so-called “Milwaukee Model.”

UFT Vice President Leo Casey, who oversees the union’s effort to organize city charter schools, said he was impressed by the educators, many of them new teachers, who turned out for the conference.

“We’re fighting a battle for the soul of the charter school movement,” Casey said. “It’s a difficult battle, but with leaders like the teachers who came out this weekend, I know we can win it.”

Kenya Burton, a teacher at the Sisulu-Walker Charter School of Harlem, which organized with the UFT in October 2010, chaired the session on teacher, parent and student voice.

“It was great,” Burton said of the conference, recalling that she was particularly impressed by Renaissance Charter School’s Stacey Gauthier, who discussed progressive leadership at her school. “I actually got her phone number and want to do a site visit to learn how to bring her approach back to my school,” Burton said.

Brittany Helpard, a middle school math teacher at the unionized Opportunity Charter School, where negotiations for a first contract began in late October, also participated. She had only the highest praise for the conference. “Teachers, administrators and charter reform leaders came together to dialogue about how to best serve the students and families at our schools,” she said. “It was motivational.”