Dozens protest as Paulo Freire charter school axes half its teachers

  • Unionized staff from the Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School and their allies picket in front of the Chicopee school on Wednesday. The union has alleged that the school’s administration is union-busting by refusing to renew the contracts of more than half of the school’s teachers. School leaders, meanwhile, say the move is in the best interests of students. DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

  • Unionized staff from the Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School and their allies picket in front of the Chicopee school on Wednesday. The union has alleged that the school’s administration is union-busting by refusing to renew the contracts of more than half of the school’s teachers. School leaders, meanwhile, say the move is in the best interests of students. STAFF PHOTO/DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

  • Unionized staff from the Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School and their allies picket in front of the Chicopee school on Wednesday. The union has alleged that the school’s administration is union busting by refusing to renew the contracts of more than half of the school’s teachers. School leaders, meanwhile, say the move is in the best interests of students. STAFF PHOTO/DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

Staff Writer
Published: 6/24/2021 5:33:56 PM

CHICOPEE — Dozens of school staff members, parents, students and others marched Wednesday in front of the Paulo Freire Social Justice Charter School to protest officials’ decision not to renew the contracts of more than half the school’s teachers.

Unionized staffers denounced school administrators for what they said is a betrayal of the legacy and values of Freire, a radical Brazilian educator best known for his 1968 book “Pedagogy of the Oppressed.”

The union has said that the school declined to renew the contracts of all 13 teachers whose contracts expired this year. Two teachers resigned and another was offered a lower-paid, non-teaching job that they declined, the union said.

The nonrenewals represent a pattern of targeting union activists, the union said, leaving just eight unionized teachers, all of whom have contracts that did not expire this year.

“Paulo Freire was pro-union, stop union busting!” read one protester’s sign as the group marched in a circle in front of the building. Four students from the school’s performance team danced with pom-poms in a show of support for their teachers. “Unions = social justice,” read another sign.

Gilbert Traverso, the school’s executive director, did not respond to multiple requests for comment on this story. In a statement, board of trustees President Kevin Dumpson said board members “categorically deny” any allegations of anti-union actions. He said the school was founded on social justice principles and that its board and administration “strongly support the work of unions.”

“In pursuit of its mission, Paulo Freire did choose not to renew a number of staff members upon the expiration of their contracts,” Dumpson said. “These decisions follow Paulo Freire’s long-standing practice of non-renewing staff at the end of their contracts if doing so is in our students’ best interests.

“Paulo Freire is a school on the rise and to truly fulfill its mission, it was clear these changes needed to be made. It did so without regard to the individuals’ or Local 2322’s union activities.”

Dumpson declined to answer any other questions.

Many complaints

The charter school draws students from Holyoke, South Hadley, Chicopee, West Springfield and Westfield. It began in Holyoke, but moved to the former Pope Francis Catholic High School building in Chicopee in 2019.

The school, which enrolls 263 high schoolers according to state data, hired Traverso last year. Union leaders allege the school has taken a more hostile approach to the union under his leadership.

Carol Huben, a social justice teacher who is still employed at the school, said the union, which organized with the UAW Local 2322 in March 2020, has filed many labor complaints with the state Department of Labor Relations. It has accused the administration of disciplining employees for protected union activity, bargaining in bad faith, failing to respond to union communications and other alleged labor violations.

“It’s disappointing and it feels like a betrayal of the social justice mission of the school,” Huben said, adding that employees unionized in order to safely advocate for their students and themselves. “I think that the administration’s goal is to clear house so that they can not have any accountability for themselves, but that’s going to seriously negatively impact the school.”

Employees have been written up for changing their display name in virtual meetings to contain the word “union,” and previous union activists have been pushed out the door even before the most recent nonrenewal of contracts, Huben said.

In minutes from the board of trustees’ April meeting, board treasurer Phylis Gedeon said that “teachers are only doing the bare minimum of what is expected and this is very concerning.”

>f F<Minutes of an April meeting of the board’s Governance Committee state under the header “new hires” that “cultural shifts need to be made” and that “we have a socially unconscious environment.”

“New hires will be pursued,” the Governance Committee minutes say. “New program of studies has been made to capture students.”

Above and beyond

Huben disputed the board’s characterization of teachers, saying that all staffers go above and beyond for their students — especially so during a pandemic — and that the administrator who wrote teacher evaluations had never directly observed teachers.

“These are not folks who are talking to students every day,” UAW 2322 staff organizer Elizabeth Webb said.

Dawn Wanzo was an English language arts teacher whose contract the school did not renew this year. She said all of the teachers who were let go had union affiliations, and that she felt her own end-of-year review was purposefully inaccurate.

“This is a social justice school,” Wanzo said. “Part of that is helping students have a voice and speak up for themselves … Their voices, teacher voices — none of them were heard.”

Another former teacher, Zach Novak, said he was one of the original organizers in the union. He said the day that staffers announced the union last year, administrators called him into a meeting — an attempt at intimidation, he said.

“They had no interest in playing nice from the get-go and I was singled out as ‘the guy’ even though it was an all-staff effort,” Novak said. He said he was offered a contract while on summer vacation last year, but it was then inexplicably rescinded. “No reason was offered to me at the time, and I can only assume it was to bust up the union,” he said.

In addition to teachers, the union represents other staffers such as guidance counselors. Wendy Cooper was the school nurse and a member of the union’s bargaining committee. She said she quit two months ago after watching good teachers leave as management stalled at the bargaining table.

“They deserve to have a contract,” Cooper said of her former co-workers. “They started the union in good faith.”

Parents of students, students themselves and alumni were also present at Wednesday’s picket. One of them, 19-year-old Zariah Motley, graduated from the school last year.

“I’m supporting teachers that have taught me about the realness out in the world,” Motley said.

Only a handful of the state’s charter schools are unionized. Employees at Paulo Freire and the Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School in South Hadley unionized in recent years with UAW 2322. In November, staff at PVPA announced that they had reached their first contract with the school. Paulo Freire staff remain without a first contract

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.


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