Credit: Darrow Montgomery

Last week, Kay Elaster, the principal at Bridges Public Charter, told Liz Koenig, a preschool teacher who has worked at Bridges for the last five years, that she was “not a good fit” for the school and would not be welcome back next year. This is Elaster’s first year.

Koenig, one of the most highly-regarded teachers at her school by both parents and colleagues, says administrators told her they made the decision not based on her teaching quality or her dedication to students—both of which they acknowledged were strong. In 2016, Koenig was voted by Bridges teachers as “Best of Staff.”

In the past year Koenig has started speaking publicly about working conditions, both within her school and across D.C. charters as a whole. In October, at a conference organized by the teacher activist group EmpowerED, Koenig spoke on a panel with four educators and this reporter about increasing transparency in the charter sector.

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In her speech, Koenig talked about learning two years ago that their pre-K classes were going to be increased from 18 to 20 students in order to boost their school’s per-pupil funding. Four Bridges teachers mobilized in response. “My fellow educators and I wrote a letter detailing our concerns about this change to the board, including that our ability to deliver quality instruction would be hampered,” she said. “In response to our letter the board told us this type of instructional decision was not in their purview, even though we know this was discussed at a board meeting from someone who was there, and moreover, inaccurate information about our pre-K program had been presented in support of the increase [in class size].” The board told the teachers to take their concerns to the school’s leadership team. Koenig says they were soon reprimanded for going outside the chain of command. In the 2017-18 school year, pre-K class size at Bridges increased to 20 students.

“It was demoralizing to have our voices shut down so completely,” she says. “It was defeating to realize that I had no tools to investigate the leadership team’s and the board’s decision to make money off my classroom at the expense of instructional quality.”

This experience motivated Koenig to become an activist for charter school transparency. She notes that in most other cities, the public can review board meeting minutes, attend the board meetings themselves, and file Freedom of Information Act requests to learn more about decision-making within the publicly-funded, privately-managed schools.

In October, Koenig also joined Twitter with the handle @dcteachersunite, where she has posted frequently about the importance of increasing transparency in the charter sector—particularly subjecting individual schools to FOIA and the Open Meetings Act. In November, she filed her first FOIA request with the D.C. Public Charter School Board, and shared the results publicly online when she got the documents the following month.

In late January Koenig testified at the D.C. Public Charter School Board’s monthly meeting about the need to increase transparency in the charter school sector. “I am both a parent of a child in a charter school and a teacher at a charter school in the city,” she said. “As a parent and as a teacher I’ve learned that the best schools are built on trusting relationships—between students and teachers, between parents and teachers, and between teachers and their schools … Transparency builds trust.”

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And most recently, Koenig spoke on the record for a City Paper story on charter school teacher pay, bringing to light the challenges educators face when trying to plan for their financial futures in a sector that doesn’t make detailed salary information publicly available. She also pushed back on the D.C. Public Charter School Board’s suggestion that posting average teacher salaries, as opposed to a more detailed breakdown that could illuminate disparities and even discrimination, was enough. “What does average teacher salary tell me about how teachers are compensated for experience, credentials, and education?” she asked on Twitter. “What does it tell me about how TAs are compensated vs. leads? What does it tell me about parity in pay for different demographic groups of teachers?”

Principal Elaster and School Director Olivia Smith did not return City Paper’s request for comment, including for further explanation on what a “good fit” means, and whether Koenig’s termination was related to her recent activism around transparency and working conditions.

Mikey Weidman, who has had two of her children go through Koenig’s class, tells City Paper that Koenig has “been the best teacher we’ve seen” at Bridges. “She’s fantastic, smart, creative and incredibly energetic,” Weidman says. “She’s devoted to her families, she gives a lot of individual feedback, and she speaks Spanish and developed fantastic relationships with some of the Spanish-speaking families.”

Weidman requested that her son have “Ms. Liz” after seeing their daughter have such a positive experience in her class. “Our kids love her, and having watched her stay with the school for much longer than most people do, and all the while continue to grow her expertise and serve families who come back to her over and over, it’s hard to look at this decision as anything that’s not retaliatory.”

Weidman and her wife have sent a letter to Elaster and Smith, and say they intend to write to  the board of directors, too. “When you have an excellent teacher being fired for nothing to do with her teaching, it sends a message to other teachers that they need to be quiet and comply,” says Weidman. “And what I hear loud and clear from this as a parent is it’s more important to the administration that no one is rocking the boat than a highly exceptional teacher be able to continue in the school, and I find that profoundly upsetting.”

Jamie Boese was another parent who personally requested that her daughter be placed in Koenig’s class. “She was the best teacher in the entire building,” says Boese. “She frankly taught me how to be a better parent. To say she’s not a ‘right fit’ really makes me question what kind of staff they’re trying to cultivate.”

Koenig plans to finish out the school year at Bridges.

“What I do every day is my absolute dream job,” she says. “Goddammit, I love those kids.”