02/27/2019

They called our students ‘revenue’

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Literal holes in the wall. A revolving door of teachers and support staff. Ancient classroom materials. These are just some of the things students at Summit Academy in Parma, Ohio, face every day, say their educators, who went on strike last week to win better teaching and learning conditions. The teachers and intervention specialists, who voted to join the Ohio Federation of Teachers last year, have been trying to negotiate their first contract with Summit Academy Management for more than nine months.

Summit Academy parents

The educators’ demands are simple: improved health and safety conditions, manageable class sizes and caseloads, planning periods, and standards that will allow the school to retain high-quality staff and provide consistency for students. Unfortunately, Summit Academy Management has failed to bargain in good faith with its teachers, choosing instead to force a strike.

“Our priority is better learning conditions for our students,” says Todd Ratica, a middle and high school social studies teacher and member of the bargaining committee. “Summit Academy Management has different priorities. In our negotiations, they even told us ‘students are revenue.’ We didn’t want to strike, but it was necessary to guarantee the resources that our students deserve.”

Summit Academy serves students with special needs, but its educators report soaring class sizes, insufficient supports and dangerous conditions. Emily Quarrick, an intervention specialist at Summit, says she no longer believes the school is a safe place for students or teachers. Safety and the other core values Summit Academy claims to advance in its marketing materials to prospective parents are “at best, a fairy tale,” says Quarrick. 

A week into their strike, Summit Academy teachers went back to the bargaining table hoping to negotiate an end to the strike. They were stunned when Summit Academy Management proposed a contract that was significantly worse than its pre-strike offer. “It is clear that their intent is not to negotiate a contract, but rather to obstruct, delay and try to break our union,” the bargaining team said in a statement.

With no progress at the bargaining table, teachers returned to the picket line Tuesday, recommitted to their fight to ensure that students get the resources they deserve. Meanwhile, in the nearby town of Painesville, teachers, intervention specialists and instructional aides at a second Summit Academy school filed their petition for union recognition, seeking to become the seventh charter school to join the Cleveland Alliance of Charter Teachers and Staff.

“We are doing this for the benefit and safety of our students,” says Brittney Jakopic, a teacher and intervention specialist for grades K-2, and member of the Painesville organizing committee. “As teachers, we want to make sure that Summit Academy Painesville keeps up on its promises to parents.”

The Summit Academy educators in Parma are the first group of public charter educators in Ohio to go out on strike, and only the fourth in the country, following charter strikes in Chicago in December and Los Angeles in January. These charter strikes have emerged as part of a national wave of educators walking out of their classrooms to demand an end to disinvestment and scarcity in education. Whether they serve students in a neighborhood school or a public charter school, America’s educators want the same thing: better teaching and learning conditions for their students.

Summit Academy strike with Randi Weingarten

“Summit Academy’s business model appears to be prioritizing profit over the safety of their students and staffing the school at levels that are inconsistent with what they promise parents,” says Melissa Cropper, president of the Ohio Federation of Teachers. “The teachers and intervention specialists at Parma are the latest educators in a national wave of teacher strikes because they know their students deserve better.”

Like their counterparts in Chicago and Los Angeles, the striking Summit Academy teachers have the enthusiastic support of the school’s parents and the surrounding community. On the strike’s first day, supporters actually sent enough pizza to the picket line to feed the striking teachers and their families for two days.

“My daughter has come so far since starting at Summit Academy, and so much of that has to do with the teachers. We support the strike because our kids and the teachers deserve better,” says Abby Fischer from Middleburg Heights, whose child attends Summit Academy Parma. “My kid deserves a highly qualified teacher. She deserves an intervention specialist. She deserves a one-to-eight ratio, which is what they're supposed to have.”

“The Summit teachers are fighting for what the Summit kids need—and what management promised their parents—a safe and welcoming place for their children to grow and thrive,” said AFT President Randi Weingarten after visiting the striking teachers on the picket line. “They want to work with, not against, the administration to win manageable class sizes, for a living wage so they don’t have to work two or three jobs, for an accessible learning environment, and for basic transparency and accountability. Summit Management says it believes in ‘excellence in all things education.’ And its sponsor Lake Erie West claims to be an expert in accountability. We simply want them to live up to that promise."

Lake Erie West, Summit Academy's sponsor, was also the sponsor for the scandal-ridden Electronic Classroom of Tomorrow charter school network, a company that falsified enrollment data, fraudulently collected $80 million in state funding and ultimately closed, leaving students and families scrambling. Summit Academy educators in both Parma and Painseville say that Lake Erie West, which is responsible for overseeing more than 50 charter schools statewide, is an absentee sponsor that fails to hold its schools accountable.

Lake Erie West might not care about holding the schools it sponsors accountable, but AFT educators and parents aren’t giving up. Braving single-digit wind chills as they walk the picket line, the Summit Academy educators have been cheered on by their students, by local elected officials, and by their union family from across the state and the country. “We're focused on making sure our students get the attention they deserve,” says Heather Sedlak, a high school intervention specialist and member of the bargaining committee.

summit academy strike signs

Click here to show your support for Summit Academy Parma educators and students by sending an email to Summit Academy Management CEO John Guyer.

[Leilah Mooney Joseph]