September 11th, 2008
The UFT's Charter Schools

Photo credit: The UFT

Imagine a school where teachers don’t just teach – they govern, too.

That’s the idea behind the United Federation of Teachers Elementary and Secondary Charter Schools in East New York, Brooklyn. Created in 2005, the schools are the first in the nation to totally involve the United Federation of Teachers, New York’s union of professional educators. The result, supporters say, is an inspiring community environment on the cutting-edge of educational reform.

While a union-run charter school might sound like a contradiction in terms, UFT president and AFT vice president Randi Weingarten has defended the concept – noting that the UFT doesn’t oppose charter schools, it opposes those which don’t honor its collective bargaining agreement. She also says the union used New York City’s chartering process to show that it could put together a school on public school resources that honors this agreement, and at the same time, encourages professional development for teachers.

The UFT’s first charter school opened its doors to kindergartners and first grade students in September 2005. Since then, its expanded to include students through third grade. The UFT also opened a secondary-level charter school in Fall 2006 – a school so popular among local parents that it received over 1,000 applications. It also made a strong impression on teachers – attracting more than 800 applicants for its 18 staff positions.

What makes these union schools different, other than teacher involvement and governance? According to supporters, it’s the ability to promote an intensive, well-rounded curriculum – one that includes science, social studies, physical education and the arts – and to control factors like class size and teacher-student ratios.

At the UFT schools, there are two teachers in every classroom – from kindergarten through the second grade. The class sizes are all low – between 20 and 25 students – to ensure individualized attention. Students are also prepared for life-long personal responsibility, required to participate in weekly school and community service programs. Another bonus of the school, its teachers say, is the ability to take risks in the classroom – because they are covered by the UFT contract.

The UFT schools also boast a high-tech environment – with each classroom featuring several computer stations, wireless Internet access, and mobile computers that can be moved from class to class.

The UFT hopes the school will serve as a blueprint for the creation of more union-run schools nationwide.

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