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Youth Connection charter set to fire teachers, union cries foul

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.


Anonymous wrote 2 years 32 weeks ago

Charter Schools purpose is to break the teachers union.

The whole purpose of Charter Schools is to kick out the teachers union so they could do whatever they need to, isn't it? The Mayor's goal is to get rid of the teachers union with the proliferation of non-union Charter Schools. Five times the funding with no connection to a union...winning.

Anonymous wrote 2 years 32 weeks ago

Laying off Employees

All these layoffs and turmoil in Chicago, Detroit, Wisconsin. I would think that teacher recruitment is going to start to fall. Let's face it, teaching is a good job, but how are we going to find 26k martyr teachers (who raise every score of course) who dont mind getting layed off due to mass layoffs, bad reviews, principals whims....why would anyone invest in an education to be a teacher. Once the safety benefit is gone, and the summers and vacations are gone, I guarantee they will be BEGGING for teachers once again!

xian wrote 2 years 32 weeks ago

For the kids

For all the smoke, mirrors and BS, we see that when CPS and the charter operators have to choose between what's best for kids and fighting for their own power, the kids are the ones they toss out in the cold.

Anyone who would willingly toss out kids so they could avoid a union has no business in education .

EduReformer wrote 2 years 32 weeks ago

I will sleep easier tonight

I will sleep easier tonight knowing that these poor, at-risk children are safe from the prospect of a unionized staff. Yikes!

These youth may be at the last stop on the road to dropping out of school entirely, but at least they won't have teachers who are empowered to stand up for students and advocate for both teacher and student needs.

Ahhhh...sleep is my friend.

Anonymous wrote 2 years 32 weeks ago

Five Times the Funding???

I wanna git me one o' them charter schools!

Actually, the funding is roughly 80% of what regular district schools get, not 500%.

Felicia Riley wrote 2 years 32 weeks ago

I hope they don't close the school.

Why would you want them to close it. Have you been to or attended a Charter School before? I graduated from Youth Connection and I loved being there,coming from a suburban school Rich East(In Park Forest) (which should have closed) I came from a school that didn't care if you failed. They swept you under the rug and if you were having problems,you had to figure it out yourself. I was going to drop out and then I got accepted to Youth Connection and it changed my life for the better.They are not just teachers they are people who REALLY CARE about the well being of their students both in and outside of the school. I found out my true potential attending there and I will always be grateful to them. It was never about a pay check it was about HUMAN BEINGS who wanted to change the futures of so many kids who other schools had deemed "trouble makers" or "lost causes".

Anonymous wrote 2 years 32 weeks ago

Teachers Need Our Support

Teaching is an incredibly difficult and under supported career field. These teachers are brave to stand up for themselves in such a hostile climate. They do amazing work with amazing students. This work cannot continue if the teachers do not get better and more sufficient support. Bravo to the organizers.

Justice and Fairness wrote 2 years 32 weeks ago

Youth Conection Leadership Academy

Hopefully, all involved will put the best interests of the students first. YCLA needs an overhaul of its current curriculum, special education services, and professional development opportunities. The teachers of YCLA should have the opportunity to participate in the selection, development, and implementation of its own curriculum, special education services, and professional development. Why wouldn't management want to work alongside its teachers to reach all academic goals?

Anonymous wrote 2 years 32 weeks ago

Put Children First

I agree Justice.

just get tired of people saying teachers need to put the "children first" ..Yet this is just another way of saying teachers you will pay a "special" tax by giving up your income. They think that somehow giving teachers less money and more responsiblity they can wash their own hands of our underfunded school system. People we have 33 kids in our classes, we buy our own paper. Yes we get the summer off. However, anyone who has had ONE child knows how much work can be. Serioulsy, for one minute think of having 32 more to watch for 8 hours. All the while, you are being degraded by your principal, the mayor, and the Press. You think this is helping us? Why dont these people volunteer in our schools? We all need to put children first!!!!!

. However, the public needs to put the children first too. They need to pay their share and volunteer and donate too. So many people who drum the "children first" are the same people who dont want to pay income taxes.

Anonymous wrote 2 years 32 weeks ago


They say judge a society on how they treat their children.

However, I think to see how a school treats its students, see how they treat their teachers. We are teaching our students, and parents, that teachers don't matter. One day these children will be adults, and maybe a teacher. You need to RESPECT ALL people in order to respect and teach children respect. Firing an entire staff shows ZERO respect for humans. Yes, I know it happens in the "corporate" world. However, this has no place in a school environment!

EduReformer wrote 2 years 32 weeks ago

The children have been put

The children have been put first in this scenario. Youth Connections is a private company and they are doing what they believe is best for students. Closing the school, terminating the teachers, or refusing to allow one of their campuses to go union benefits the students. If they didn't do these things teachers would get to be involved in important areas and would screw everything up.

bdh wrote 2 years 32 weeks ago



"Closing the school... benefits the students."

Totally! Right?

Chicago dad wrote 2 years 31 weeks ago

Surely you jest?

"teachers would get to be involved in important areas and would screw everything up."
So according to you the actual job of teaching is not an important part? That those who are on the front lines and actually do the work know the least about what's best for kids and that administrators and edu-preneurs know more??? That the teachers who were the best choice to teach the kids instantly become no good at teaching when they decide to unionize? Closing a school of last resort for the most at risk kids is good for them? Thank you for being honest about your abject lack of understanding of the issues. People like you who think that teaching is no different than flipping burgers in a totally systematized environment where all procedure has to be imposed from the top down are a massive part of the problem with your so called reforms and the direct cause of the need for charter teachers to unionize.

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