I received the following letter and agreed to post it.
My name is Matt Schuman, and the majority of my professional experience has consisted of teaching and giving back my own law school education knowledge within New York City schools. My most recent school, The Charter High School for Law and Social Justice (“CHSLSJ”), has been in the news for anti-union behavior. Specifically, the management of the school (via its principal and president of the board) terminated eleven of fifteen members covered by the collective bargaining unit. The only four members retained had no overt association with our union activities.
During CHSLSJ’s first year, my colleagues and I voted to unionize with the U.F.T., not only because we wanted protection, but because we genuinely believed a fair and efficient contract would help this new school build up its infrastructure in positive ways that would impact, both short and long-term, the inaugural classes of scholars and their family-members.
While in law school, I learned about the term, “unconscionable behavior”. I learned that such a level of behavior was a very high bar to reach. From a social justice perspective, lawyers and activists do not just throw around that term. By standard definition, the term “unconscionable” means “unreasonably excessive”. The legal definition means “shocking to the conscience and/or an action so harsh that courts would proscribe it.” New York City can be a tough, competitive place, where a survival of the fittest mentality sometimes reigns: eat or be eaten, play or be played. I could easily complain that I and my fellow colleagues were treated unfairly, but what’s more shocking and unconscionable is the effect(s) of these actions on the scholars and their family-members.
The U.F.T., via its president, Michael Mulgrew, has already cited the blatant “hypocrisy” of my school’s actions: a budding institution formed to help young children from the Bronx not only learn about social justice, but actually move along a better pipeline from high-school to law-school has sent the message that people who advocate for basics protections and their rights are not protected (Otis 18).
As a teacher, I’ve always valued working with the underdogs (people who are not given everything and who very often have to endure strenuous fights for what they want in life). That’s why I joined CHSLSJ as a founding team-member. I wanted to do social justice work, and I believed I could do it there!
Until the leadership regime changed during CHSLSJ’s second year, we all were doing such work. I felt honored and motivated to work with CHSLSJ’s founding principal and assistant principal, Ms. Samantha Pugh and Mr. Simon Obas, respectively. I looked at our Board President’s, Mr. Richard Marsico’s curriculum vitae, and saw that he had devoted his early post-Harvard Law School years to studying and stimulating economic empowerment in the Bronx.
Unfortunately, the charter school wave has generated ample political tension. Charter school C.E.O. figureheads and national networks have pushed results at the expense of human treatment. I never believed that our independent, social justice-oriented charter-school would fall victim to the same trends. I’m disappointed. I do not wish for my scholars to learn non-empathetic, guarded, and secretive behavior.
As a writing teacher, I’m aware of potential back-stories in any given situation: nepotism, social preference, fiscal mismanagement, and uncertain economics. Still, teachers, especially ones that open a school’s doors and promote a man’s mission (or brainchild), deserve to be protected, supported, and celebrated. Many of us went down to the principal, Mr. Sean-Thomas Harrell, and asked for communication towards the end of the year about our roles and status. We were met with vague, misleading, and self-serving responses.
On a larger-scale, I worry about the fate of American education both in technologically, disconnected times and during President Trump’s administration. I look at the recent actions of his son and can only compare them to the actions of the people that I’d hoped would be CHSLSJ’s leaders.
CHSLSJ’s unconscionable actions directly touch on the lives of the scholars and the education provided to them by their instructors. We don’t want to raise a generation of “leaders” who cut corners and think they can squeeze by or into positions with lies. We want people who stand on their own two feet. We don’t want people who fend off any criticism with more misleading information. We want people who will be held accountable, because they, themselves, have integrity.
I am sorry that my former scholars have to see their school’s name in print as a result of a legal case and controversy. Their names should be in print as a result of their achievements! In poignant fashion, the law and mock-trial team which I coached this year knocked off Columbia Grammar and Preparatory School where Donald Trump’s son attends. That achievement mattered, because the children of the Bronx saw firsthand that their own success was possible. We all believed that we could turnkey the skills we demonstrated in the courtroom back to the rest of the school, and in turn move in the horizon line for possibilities, and make what is usually a struggle much more obtainable.
What happened is not fair, but more importantly it is not efficient. My scholars and my colleagues who no longer work at CHSLSJ deserve to hear and see the right messages. The first year teacher among us needs to know he will receive support and be championed. The most struggling learner needs to see and know that the positive connections he built up with his/her teachers will not just be mysteriously washed away by someone with whom he does not have a relationship. Power does not bestow that type of privilege.
For these reasons, I do view CHSLSJ management’s behavior as unconscionable. I am shocked, but not disheartened that the emotions of the board’s most important constituents, the scholars, their families, and their teachers, were not even acknowledged once. The lesson learned for leaders in education is that the decisions they make often impact the faces whom they do not see. These same faces, however, have unbelievable potential to stay strong, keep hope, and become needed human leaders who act in the most conscionable of ways. Our schools, and perhaps our American times, primarily depend on this proposition.
Lifelong Educator and Law Program Coach
Source: Otis, Ginger Adams. “Uncivil act to teachers”. NY Daily News. 2 July 2017. P. 18.
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