Public outcry saves Bronzeville charter school—for now
July 5, 2012
YCLA will remain open now, after management had previously threatened to close down the school.

By Lisa R. Jenkins

Because of their dissatisfaction with the managing board of the Youth Connection Charter School (YCCS) organization, the teachers of Youth Connection Leadership Academy (YCLA), 3424 S. State St., in May decided to form a union.

YCLA is one of several charter schools funded by Chicago Public Schools (CPS) but run YCCS, a private organization.

The teachers decided to unionize so they could ensure management makes the “best decisions” for their students, said Rachel Blackburn, a YCLA teacher. “We are on the forefront, and we understand the needs of our students,” Blackburn added. “We want to have a voice.”

Days after teachers voted unanimously to unionize, they received individual letters stating YCLA would close due to low student retention and poor attendance rates that fail to meet CPS criteria. CPS reserves the right to close YCCS schools that do not meet performance targets.

Two weeks before unionizing, however, most of the teachers had received letters renewing their employment for the 2012-2013 academic year. Teachers and parents alike found the timing of the second round of letters suspicious, and the Chicago Alliance of Chicago Teachers (Chicago ACTS) Local 4343 of the American Federation of Teachers immediately filed an unfair labor practice
claim against YCCS.

“The YCLA teachers’ decision to form a union shows their dedication to their students and school,” said Chicago ACTS Local 4343 president Brian Harris. “It is unfortunate that YCCS management has taken such a bold step in what seems to be an attempt to avoid teachers’move to unionize.”

A YCCS statement called the letters’ timing “coincidence” and added, “we are currently in talks with CPS to figure out whether changing school leadership, its educational program, the structural focus, or closing the school all together would be best for the students of YCLA. By law, YCCS had to notify the teachers that their jobs could be in danger as a restructuring plan is being worked out, but closing was never the intention.”

YCLA is an alternate high school that employs 20 teachers and staff. It enrolls about 180 students who have been expelled from the CPS system.

The teachers held a press conference and attended a YCCS board meeting May 31, prompting public outcry by students and parents. Afterward, YCCS decided the school would remain open for the time being.

Speakers at the YCCS board meeting included YCLA graduate and teacher Nicole Durham, who spoke on the importance of alternate schools and the need for an organized workforce to offer the students the best education possible.

“Unlike most other charters, YCLA doesn’t have selective enrollment criteria, and closing a school comprised of students that need a second chance would leave them in a very difficult situation,” she said.

Around 100 people packed the board meeting and shared concerns and demands for better schooling. The board appeared to have been persuaded by outcries from the teachers and their union, students, parents, and supporters throughout the city to allow YCLA to remain open for now.

“The one thing teachers have within their ability to control is whether or not they can organize,” said Jackson Potter, Chicago Teachers Union chief of staff, in explaining why the YCLA teachers decided to unionize. “They have rights to demand things for their students and their colleagues. When these teachers went and exercised their rights, [officials] threatened to close down the school. When they close our schools, theywreak havoc and disruption in our communities.”

YCCS has provided alternate education programs in Chicago since 1997 and is the only chartered alternate education system dedicated solely to serving Illinois’s growing population of dropout and at-risk students.

By building small campuses in partnership with community based organizations and nearby community colleges, YCCS provides at-risk students with a learning environment designed to accelerate their educational development and help them to earn high school diplomas. It operates 23 campuses with an average attendance rate of 78% over the past 13 years and a 69% average retention rate. At any given time, at least 2,000 students are on the waiting list to enroll at one of its campuses.