04/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

How A Charter School Turns Union

When two teachers came up to Kashi Nelson earlier this year and invited her to a meeting, Nelson was not at all enthused.

After all, it was all the extra meetings at the KIPP school in Brooklyn that the veteran educator felt were making the school year so hard.

But this wasn't just another hastily-scheduled, superfluous-seeming meeting where administrators would lecture teachers. This was a meeting for teachers to talk about whether to join the union or not.

Knowing that, the 7th and 8th grade social studies teacher decided to go.

"If something's going on around me, I want to know," says Nelson."Let me just see what's up."

Nelson's experience at KIPP AMP sheds light on how teachers at the small charter school came to believe that union representation was the best way to go, and illustrates some of the challenges that charter networks like KIPP face when their numbers increase and their faculties become more diverse.

The meeting was held at a cafe. Over soup and muffins, teachers shared what was going on in their classrooms. There, Nelson realized that she wasn't the only one with concerns about how the school was being run, nor the only one who had tried privately to come up with ways to address the problems -- to no avail. A collective effort to get the administration's attention was considered but dropped. "The school veterans didn't feel it would make a difference," says Nelson.

She didn't sign that day, but soon after she added her name to those who were seeking union representation, along with several others.

Of course, not all the teachers -- including some of Nelson's closest friends at the school -- wanted to join the union. And not everyone was happy about the unionization effort. Seeing her wearing a union pin, a colleague accused her of "single-handedly bringing the school down."

Nelson doesn't fit the stereotype of a charter school teacher. She's got 12 years of education experience -- and a law degree. She was an assistant principal at a magnet school in North Carolina before coming up to join KIPP AMP in January last year. She has two daughters, ages 3 and 12 -- the eldest attends the school. She's familiar with the NEA from her days as a teacher.

Nor does KIPP AMP fit the model for a unionized workplace. Like most charter networks, the KIPP model is designed to operate outside of union rules. Instead, the schools -- most of them small middle schools -- offer the promise of a collaborative, flexible workplace. There are just 86 AFT-organized charter schools nationwide, according to a union official.

Still, it seemed at first like the unionization effort might happen without too much conflict. The teachers union sent out a somewhat exuberant press release about the vote to unionize, but president Randi Weingarten spoke in conciliatory tones about what the union hoped to accomplish at the school.

By early February, however, reports started coming out about stalled negotiations and alleged intimidation by KIPP administrators.

The path that led to this point began last year, if not earlier.

Nelson joined the school halfway through the 2007-08 year, when her predecessor left. She had been researching KIPP for years. She knew what to expect. The classroom wasn't a struggle for her, nor the long hours. It didn't take long for beginning teachers to start coming to her for classroom management ideas.

If there was any settling-in process, it had to do with the expectations of collegiality and socializing within KIPP. Nelson had never been this close to colleagues before, and it took effort for her to let down her guard and engage in KIPP's "team and family" approach. Still, some of the personal relationships among KIPP members seemed problematic to her, as did the after-hours drinking.

Nelson says that there were tensions and rumblings at the school last year, especially coming from the founding teachers. She remembers there being a lot of home office staff in the building.

At some point along the way, Ky Adderly, who had been principal and had hired Nelson, was moved over to be "founding" principal. He remained in the building but was no longer in charge of the teachers. Two founding teachers, Jeff Li, and Melissa Parry, were named assistant principals. By the end of the year, Li and Parry were named co-principals and Adderly was assigned to the citywide KIPP office (but remained in the building).

For a time, it seemed to Nelson like these changes were going to work. Teachers got a break in July while Li and Parry got trained. Everyone seemed hopeful and optimistic during summer meetings when they got back. The faculty revisited the KIPP core values, and did team-building exercises to bond founding faculty and new teachers like Nelson. "We all drank the cool-aid," says Nelson.

Once problems started coming up again in the new school year, however, the mood changed quickly despite the change in leadership. Teachers were "shut down" and told to talk offline whenever they raised issues at meetings, according to Nelson. But those follow-up conversations never happened. Other promises went unmet, including regular videotaped observations. "It was all talk," says Nelson. "Just talk."

It didn't make Nelson feel any better when the teacher across the hall from her was fired. Another teacher had been fired last spring.

Still, going to the union was not anyone's first choice. Adderly declined to intervene when Nelson went to him with complaints about the new leaders. Her efforts to get word to Levin via back channels didn't seem to work, either. Levin was at the school once a week, but seemed oblivious to the extent of the problems -- perhaps distracted by plans to expand KIPP to elementary and high schools. "He's not able to do this all on his own," says Nelson. Others pursued similar efforts to keep things working, to no avail.

Not surprisingly, things have been confusing and uncertain since the teachers decided to unionize. Teachers and administrators, pro and con, are all stuck there at the school together each day, like a couple that is broken up but have to share the same apartment for a few awkward weeks until someone moves out.

One of the assistant principals, Li, has stopped coming to school and is now on leave, according to Nelson. (An effort to reach him via email was unsuccessful.)

Meantime, the national union gotten involved, sending reporters "fact sheets" about the situation and offering to put reporters in touch with KIPP teachers like Nelson [which is how we came to talk].

Nelson says that going public was a necessity in the face of KIPP's efforts to push back against the unionization effort and its effectiveness winning positive press coverage. [For their part, school administrators and KIPP founders have generally refrained from commenting to the press.]

"I wish we didn't have to play this all out in public," says Nelson, talking on the morning of her daughter's third birthday.

Teachers come back from break on Monday. The PERB meeting has been scheduled for March 19th. In the meantime, perhaps some of the main players in this story -- Adderly, Li, and Parry -- will share their side of events.

"We don't want a 30-page contract," says Nelson, contrary to published reports. She imagines something much shorter. She thinks that just a few provisions focused on the school's leave policy and evaluation procedures "will foster teacher retention which benefits the students and the school."

Despite the last year's ups and downs, and all her previous years in education, Nelson remains upbeat and confident that this could all work out for the better.