Ask Nichole Byrne Lau. Ask her former students.
A second career teacher with a M.A. from Teachers’ College, Nichole taught English for the last two years at the Williamsburg Charter High School in Brooklyn. She received laudatory evaluations and recommendations from the principal, from the school’s director of instruction and from the school’s director of special needs and academic support. They commended her “hard work and dedication,” and described her as “a passionate, high energy teacher” and “a dedicated and caring teacher.” They praised her work with “special needs students to help them make great gains in their reading and writing ability.”
Students were no less lavish in their praise. Formal student evaluations placed in Nichole’s personnel file describe her as a “great,” “very good,” and “wonderful” teacher. “She is always on task and keeps us interested in our lessons,” one student explained. “She is so organized and helps us to do better in class,” wrote another student. “She always has everything planned out so well and everyone is able to pass the class.”
“Your relationship with the students is what is really stellar,” Principal Marsha Spampinato wrote to Nichole in a year-end evaluation. “Students know when people care for them and are not paying ‘lip service’. They understand that you are interested in them as individuals as well as students. This helps greatly in the rapport that you have with your classes…”
Nichole’s supervisors at the Williamsburg Charter High School thought so highly of her work, that when Department of Education Chancellor Joel Klein came to visit this spring, they showcased her class. In his March newsletter to New Yorkers, Klein wrote about a lesson Nichole taught to her ninth grade English class on Homer’s Odyssey which engaged the students to think critically about the gods of Greek mythology.
But that was March. Shortly thereafter, Nichole shared with other teachers in the school the salary schedule for teachers in the New York City Department of Education. Although teachers at Williamsburg had many more teaching contact hours, and far less preparation time, than NYC school teachers, they found that they earned considerably less than their public school counterparts. Nichole reached out to the UFT, through this blog, asking what her rights were and how she might secure them. She and a second teacher asked Eddie Calderon-Melendez, the founder and Chief Executive Officer of Williamsburg Charter High School, how salaries were set, and if there was a schedule for the school. A third teacher began to ask questions about why the quarterly reports of teachers’ 401-K plans did not show that the school was depositing the funds that were part of their remuneration for their work.
The response to these inquiries came in the form of a June 8th memorandum from Calderon-Melendez to all Williamsburg staff on the subject of “Personnel Policies.” He wrote: “I am resolute on the vision and mission of the school as designed, developed and articulated by me. It is particularly important to understand that this requires a clear understanding of what the school is, will be and what it will and won’t be as articulated by Myself and the Founding Principal.” [Capitalization and syntax from original.] “Feel free to make an appointment to see me,” he went on, “if there any questions or concerns you have in regards to anything involving your employment or the school.”
Shortly before the issuance of this memo, Calderon-Melendez began a series of meetings with school staff. In the meeting with Nichole, he told her that he was ending her employment at the school. She asked for a reason. He replied that he did not have to give her a reason, as she was an “at will” employee who could be let go for any reason whatsoever. He did allow, however, that it had nothing to do with her teaching. [Charter school management who oppose unionization often argue “at will” employment is essential for ensuring the quality of their teaching staff.] “I was devastated,” Nichole says. The teacher who had inquired about the missing 401-K contributions was also dismissed.
UFT President Randi Weingarten has written letters to Calderon-Melendez, Chancellor Klein and the Associate Commissioner of the New York State Education Department, Sheila Evans-Tranumn, condemning the firings and calling for a full investigation of improprieties at Williamsburg Charter High School. [The State Education Department has responsibility for the oversight of charter schools.] “As president of the New York City teachers union, a labor leader and an educator, I am appalled by what you have done,” Weingarten told Calderon-Melendez, “and will do everything in my power to both publicize and right this wrong.”
Nichole applied for a position teaching English at one of New York City’s very best public high schools, Brooklyn Tech, which hired her last week. Having quickly landed on her feet, Nichole now says “I will never again work in a school where I don’t belong to a union.” Her dismissed colleague was hired at a top private New York City school.
For the most part, Calderon-Melendez ducked reporters’ calls on the firings. But he did speak to New York Daily News reporter Erin Einhorn, and engaged in the type of gutter smear that says everything about the sort of person who makes it. “She hates children and she’s a racist,” he said by way of explanation for his actions. [A later print edition of the Times also carried the accusations.]
Amazing, isn’t it, that the same person who was highly praised by both her supervisors and her students for her caring, her dedication and her relationship with her students, could “hate children” and be “a racist”? Just as amazing, isn’t it, that students would hand in a petition with four pages of signatures demanding the re-hiring of a teacher who “hates” them? Nichole, who is a Quaker that feels so strongly about opposing bigotry that she agreed to be the unpaid faculty advisor for Williamsburg’s Gay-Straight Alliance, said she “was floored” by Calderon-Melendez’s slander.
But we have to admit that having seen what had already taken place, we at Edwize were not surprised. There are reasons why the Calderon-Melendezes of the charter world don’t want their teachers represented by unions. Those reasons have nothing to do with the quality of teaching the students receive, and everything to do with the exercise of absolute, unquestioned authority by Those In Power.
That is why teachers in charter schools, like teachers in other public schools, need unions. And it is also why, as the case of Nichole Byrne Lau so pointedly illustrates, students in charter schools need to have their teachers protected by unions. If there was a union at the Williamsburg Charter High School, the students in that school would still have one great, wonderful teacher of English.