CHICAGO—Employees of the EPIC Academy charter school, which opened in Chicago’s South Shore neighborhood in 2009, today announced their intention to join the Chicago Teachers Union.
Teachers and other school workers are seeking union representation to address issues that plague the school, including a recent exodus of experienced staff, high rates of staff turnover year after year, and understaffing of teachers qualified to serve the school’s large number of diverse learners.
In short, EPIC management runs the school in a way that drives educators out the door, destabilizing the entire school community and harming the educational and social development of its majority Black and Latinx student body.
Additionally, at the root of many of EPIC educators’ concerns is that EPIC administrators say that they welcome the input of people who work at the school, but those who flag issues are either ignored or retaliated against for making suggestions.
“We initially felt the need to organize because we knew that we could be serving our students and our community better,” said Martha Rubin, a special education teacher who co-teaches three grade levels.
In just the past year, the special education department at EPIC Academy has experienced staff turnover of 75 percent. The loss of these experienced educators also means the loss of people with established relationships with students, which erodes the ability of EPIC Academy to serve its student body.
At EPIC, 94 percent of students qualify for free or reduced lunch under federal poverty guidelines. Of the school’s nearly 500 students, 63 percent are Black, and 35 percent are Latino. About 14 percent are English-language learners, and 22 percent of students have special education needs.
Joining a union is also one avenue to address the institutional racism that shortchanges Black and Latinx students as well as Black educators, who have either been driven out of CPS or offered substandard wages at charter schools or as substitutes. A union contract gives employees additional leverage to demand and receive fair and equal treatment.
High turnover and vacancies leaves EPIC dependent on a large number of agency (contract) teachers at the school. Furthermore, EPIC does not hire enough social workers, special ed teachers, and English-language teachers.
Chronic understaffing and the inability to retain experienced teachers and staff is blatantly unfair to EPIC students, especially those with special needs.
Alexandra Almaraz, for example, is a paraprofessional classroom assistant, but the administration has repeatedly assigned her to teach special education classes despite her lack of proper certification. She has worked at EPIC for five years without even a modest raise beyond the basic cost-of-living increases that barely keep up with inflation.
“The turnover rate at EPIC was the turning point for a lot of us who feel we don’t have a voice here,” said Almaraz. “I was doing everything a teacher does for three life skills classes and not getting paid for it. This shortchanges both the staff and the students at EPIC.”
“Yet another group of brave educators has stood up to demand a voice for their students and their school,” said Jesse Sharkey, president of the Chicago Teachers Union. “We are proud to welcome them into the CTU’s charter division, and we hope that the EPIC administration will respect the exercise of their federal right to organize by not squandering precious educational tax dollars on union-avoidance attorneys, as most other charter operators have.”
For more information about the union organizing drive at EPIC, go to www.ctulocal1.org/EPIC.