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After months without a contract, Summit Public School teachers reach deal with management

A contract three years in the making was finalized during an eleventh hour meeting between Summit management and teachers Tuesday night.

A contract three years in the making was finalized during an eleventh hour meeting between Summit management and teachers Tuesday night.

The agreement was reached just after an early-morning picket organized by hundreds of teachers who threatened to strike if not granted better working conditions and student services. 

“We are proud of what we have accomplished in this first contract,” Diane Tavenner, CEO and co-founder of Summit Public Schools, wrote in a public statement. “We entered these negotiations with our values at the center and with a growth mindset. Yes, it was a long process and we knew it would be. We engaged in this new bargaining process with the goal of doing right by our teachers and students. We took the time needed to get it right.” 

The new contract includes updated pay and benefits, a cap on class sizes, codified health, safety and emergency policies and a new teacher evaluation system. If ratified by the Summit board and teachers union, the three-year contract will go into effect July 1.

The teachers, who comprise the Unite Summit union, organized the “walk-ins” Tuesday morning in advance of the scheduled “fact-finding” hearing—the final step in contract negotiations before a strike can be called. Demonstrators from all seven of the Bay Area’s Summit Public Schools, reaching as far as Richmond and San Jose, met outside the network’s office in Redwood City.

“Especially after this after these past few years, we've seen the value that teachers have,” said union president Janine Peñafort, who has been teaching Spanish at Summit Prep for five years. “And so that's what we're advocating for today—demanding that respect and dignity in our work.” 

A chorus of honking and cheering could be heard on Broadway outside of Summit Prep as students and parents stood alongside more than a dozen teachers, carrying signs that read “Teachers Working Conditions = Students Learning Conditions” and “Ready to Strike for Teacher Retention.”

Contract negotiations with the school began in March 2020, shortly after the union was formed. Representing roughly 200 teachers throughout the Summit system, the union advocated for expanded mental health services for the students, more academic support for English language learners and better teacher job security.

Pointing to a lack of academic and mental health support for students, as well as high burnout among teachers, Peñafort said that the current working conditions at Summit are “unsustainable.” She criticized the charter school’s “self-directed” model and increasing reliance on technology for prioritizing innovation over consistency.

“I think many of the partnerships that Summit has built with Facebook, and some of the big tech in the area…it's still not meeting the needs of our students,” she said.

Justin Kim, an eighth grade teacher at Summit K2 in El Cerrito, shared similar concerns.

“This is my second year with Summit. So pretty new still. But that's kind of average,” he said. “There's a really, really high turnover of staff.”

According to the union, only 30% of teachers have stayed at Summit for three or more years, and this year alone, over 15 teachers (nearly 8%) have already quit. In a poll conducted by the union, 53% of teachers said they would return to Summit for the coming school year. 

He described a disconnect between Summit teachers and leadership and a tendency within the management to implement major changes to the curriculum, while offering little room for feedback or input from the teachers.

“There's a lot of organizational change, constantly,” he said. “And they don't really account for the difficulty of how that impacts teacher working conditions.”

Kim named a few examples—including a sudden rollout of a new grading system for Spanish teachers and a documentation system for the special education department—which he said was frustrating and demoralizing for teachers.

“How can you ever know if you're doing a good job at something if you're constantly being told new rules of the game?” he asked. Calling the experience “organizational whiplash,” he compared it to a fictional game played in Calvin and Hobbes, in which there are no rules and every game is different. “It's Calvinball for teaching.” 

Tavenner shared a different perspective.

“From the moment we started the first school, Summit Prep, through now, that’s what I think is special about Summit schools, that these are places where people care about each other and they work together and they believe in each other,” she told Summit News, the student-run newspaper, in March.

Tavenner called this first contract “an important milestone,” adding that, while time-consuming, the process was reflective of Summit’s ethos to “break the mold of the traditional public school system, by innovating and improving upon it.

“The first of anything is hard,” she added. “This end result—which creates an environment that promotes learning and innovation and supports our teachers, students and our model—is one we’re proud of.”

Summit Public Schools is a charter school system that opened its first campus in Redwood City in 2003.

This is a developing story. Check back for updates.


Leah Worthington

About the Author: Leah Worthington

Leah, a Menlo Park native, joined the Redwood City Pulse in 2021. She covers everything from education and climate to housing and city government. Previously she worked as the online editor for California magazine in Berkeley and co-hosts a podcast.
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