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Bricolage Academy Teachers Form Union, Request Board Recognition

Aubri Juhasz
Bricolage Academy is housed in the historic John McDonogh High School on Esplanade Avenue. Mar. 1, 2021.

Teachers at Bricolage Academy have formed a union, New Orleans Public Radio has learned from United Teachers of New Orleans and teachers involved in the unionization process.

Bricolage Academy Educators United announced its formation in a letter sent to school leadership last Wednesday. The letter was shared with WWNO the following Monday.

“We believe that Bricolage will benefit from collaboration between management and staff through the formal process of collective bargaining,” the letter says.

Bricolage enrolls 778 students in PreK through the seventh grade, according to the state’s October enrollment count. The highly rated school has a curriculum that stresses both equity and innovation, and is sought after by parents and educators alike.

Union formation is commonly seen as a way for teachers to coalesce around common issues and push for systemic change. Brittany Scofield, a teacher at Bricolage, said organizing at her school is fueled by a different motivation.

“Our union loves Bricolage and realizes that it’s a great school and a nice place to work,” Scofield said. “However, every worker deserves to be part of a union.”

Scofield teaches PreK through third grade music and has been at Bricolage for almost three years. Before that she was a teacher at Homer Plessy Community School.

“For schools, especially in the charter school system, it's important to codify the things that we are already doing right in writing that's legally binding,” she said.

“When we talk about forming a union, we're really not talking about specific grievances that people have. We're talking about creating a structure that's actually equitable, that allows teachers to have decision making power,” Jackie Smith a seventh-grade ELA teacher at Bricolage said.

New Orleans’ charter school system has been subject to frequent change. Failing schools frequently pass from one charter operator to another and higher performing schools are influenced by shifting leadership and board membership.

There is no job security. Teacher retention is low, and principal turnover is high.

Scofield said giving teachers more power through union representation and collective bargaining can help address these issues and ultimately benefit students.

More than 80 percent of eligible Bricolage employees signed a petition to form a union with the United Teachers of New Orleans, according to the letter and those involved in the process.

The petition and the letter were delivered to the school’s CEO Troave’ Profice and the school’s board of directors last Wednesday. The letter requested that the board find a time to meet within the next week to “discuss recognizing our union.”

Almost a week later, the board had yet to respond, according to the union. Bricolage’s board has the power to recognize the union and begin working toward a collective bargaining agreement. The school’s CEO does not play a direct role in this process.

Board Chair Yvette Jones had not responded to a request for comment from New Orleans Public Radio at the time of publication.

“We are hopeful that the board will voluntarily recognize [our union], but we're also prepared to take it to an election if we need to,” Scofield said.

At any point, Bricolage Academy United Educators can take its fight for recognition to the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), a federal agency that enforces U.S. labor laws.

New Orleans’ charter schools are subject to federal labor laws and school boards are required to bargain when a union is successfully formed.

If Bricolage Academy Educators United decides to go the NLRB route, a formal vote will be held to ensure a majority of teachers are in favor of unionization.

In the years since Hurricane Katrina, a handful of New Orleans charter schools have attempted to unionize. Two of the district’s 77 schools currently have collective bargaining agreements.

The first school to gain union recognition was Morris Jeff Community School, followed by Benjamin Franklin High School. Before Katrina, district teachers worked under union-negotiated contracts and were represented by the United Teachers of New Olreans.

While a growing number of charter schools nationwide have achieved union recognition, it’s still a rare feat.

Some charter proponents believe the freedoms provided to charter schools should include the ability to operate without a teachers union. Like many unions, UTNO has also faced criticism for preventing schools from firing inept teachers.

“Speaking Your Mind Is Nothing New At Bricolage”

Bricolage was founded in 2013 and is housed in the historic John McDonogh High School on Esplanade Avenue. The school’s curriculum claims to be 100 percent anti-racist and culturally relevant.

At the same time, parents have alleged that the school fails to provide necessary accommodations for students with special needs. An independent report found serious shortcomings with its special education offerings. Its student body is significantly wealthier and whiter than the district overall.

It’s mission statement in part reads: “We believe innovation is central to education. To us, innovation means creative problem solving. We embed it throughout our curriculum. Our teachers and staff practice innovation, rapid iteration and a ‘design thinking’ process in everything we do. We’re always looking for new ways to improve something or address challenges.”

The union’s own mission statement closely aligns with Bricolage’s vision:

“Bricolage Academy Educators United is dedicated to advancing educational equity by placing antiracism at the forefront of our student-centered work. BAE United values the expertise of those working directly with students in order to integrate design-thinking into everything we do. As Bricolage grows, formal systems of collaboration among teachers, students, families and administration will strengthen our community in service to our goal: to be a school where everyone gets what they need to become innovators who change the world.”

Based on this philosophy, Scofield said she expected the union’s petition to be voluntarily recognized by the school board and supported by school leaders.

“Speaking your mind is nothing new at Bricolage,” Scofield said. “It’s the way that we do things.”

“We are encouraged to speak out, to go to leadership with any issues that we have,” she added. “I think that's why a lot of us thought when we submitted our petition that our leadership would be on board with it.”

But so far that hasn’t been the case. The board has been silent and Profice has said she is not supportive of unionization efforts at Bricolage, according to teachers interviewed by New Orleans Public Radio.

Staff received an email from Profice on Sunday night responding to the union’s letter and petition, according to Scofield. When asked about the email and the union’s request for recognition, Profice said she had no comment on the “internal matter.”

“I think she would prefer for us to come up with other ways to collaborate,” Scofield said. “However, we know that the only way to have a seat at the table and to really be represented is to secure our bargaining rights.”

Aubri Juhasz covers K-12 education, focusing on charter schools, education funding, and other statewide issues. She also helps edit the station’s audio stories.

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