Five years ago, Sean Damlos-Mitchell received his M.F.A. in creative writing from The New School–and like many other arts grads, didn’t quite know what to do next.
Meanwhile, a friend of his had just begun working at the Manhattan branch of Fusion Academy, which operates a chain of middle and high schools across the country. It was a unique program. The educators didn’t teach full classes, but instead worked with students one-on-one. Fusion was billed to Damlos-Mitchell as a place where he might practice some seriously exploratory teaching.
“There would be a lot of academic freedom,” the 30-year-old recalls hearing. The teachers, Damlos-Mitchell was told, were allowed to pick the topics they taught and the texts they used–and would even control how many hours they worked each week. The school would often tell teachers that being an instructor at Fusion was like being their own CEO.
“We are fully in control of our own schedules and the flexibility was unparalleled,” the pitch went, recounts Damlos-Mitchell.
The pitch worked. Damlos-Mitchell has been at the Park Avenue campus of Fusion Academy for five years. “Longer than most people make it,” claims Damlos-Mitchell, who teaches history and English.
Indeed, teacher attrition at Fusion is as high as charter school rates. According to numbers provided to me by the United Federation of Teachers, 40.4% of people who were full-time teachers at Park Avenue Fusion campus in April 2017 left by April 2018. For comparison, according to New York State education data that was analyzed by the UFT, New York City traditional public schools saw an average churn of 14% between the school years of 2014-2015 and 2015-2016; for charter schools, that ratio was 39%.
Despite what the school promised–a full-time job that lets him devise and execute his personal vision of a world-class educational program–Damlos-Mitchell and his colleagues have had trouble making ends meet. He is paid an hourly wage that falls well below what most other teachers make while he lives and works in New York, one of the most expensive cities in the world. He is also not compensated for his prep time. And since Fusion hires most of its teachers as hourly contractors, hours and salary fluctuate drastically every semester.
Damlos-Mitchell and many of his fellow teachers have had to supplement their incomes when necessary–sometimes with government assistance. He’s hoping the workers’ union he and his colleagues have recently put together will help change that.
Fusion is no ordinary academic institution. The Park Avenue campus is situated in a rented building in midtown Manhattan. Most of the school’s one-on-one classes happen in small, office-like spaces replete with a whiteboard and sometimes bookshelves; study halls and other group periods occur in bigger spaces.
On its website, Fusion touts its slogan: “a revolutionary way to school.” The pedagogy is “modeled around the needs of students who weren’t finding their place in more traditional school environments.” Fusion is a place, the company says, where young people who were–for various reasons–unsuccessful at other schools can receive private tutelage…for a price.
At Fusion’s Manhattan campus, one semester of high school costs between $20,000 and $28,000; for middle school, the range is between $24,460 and $30,870. In addition, there’s a $1,000 registration fee. That means full-time students are paying, at minimum, $41,000 a year–or as much as $62,740. Most private school tuitions in the New York City area hover a little north of $40,000. The Fusion campuses host an average of 75 full-time students, along with kids who take single classes or subject tutoring in addition to going to school elsewhere.
Despite the private school tuition Fusion Academy is collecting, its teachers aren’t afforded many luxuries. And beyond the glossy literature extolling “self-employed teachers,” teaching at Fusion is essentially a gig economy job. Teachers are given an hourly wage, generally between $27 and $33. They are paid only for the hours they teach and for five minutes of prep time each week. Some of the more dedicated educators spend unpaid hours every week, during nights and weekends, researching and planning their upcoming lessons. They are expected to create their own course materials for the accredited school, grade the homework, fill out progress reports, and correspond with parents–all while being compensated for only the hours they spend in a classroom with students.
Perhaps most difficult for teachers, class scheduling is sporadic; some months they may be completely booked with over 30 hours of classes, other times they may find themselves unable to pay their rent. Some teachers are offered department head positions, which gives them many more responsibilities–as well as a salary around $47,000.
To put this into perspective: if a New York-based teacher paid at the highest end of Fusion’s range works two semesters and teaches 30 hours of classes a week, they will be paid an annual salary of $29,700. During summers, they will have to scrounge for extra classes at Fusion to supplement their income–but most are unable to get a full class schedule that’s similar to the fall or spring roster. If Fusion instructors are able to secure an additional 20 hours of class each week during the summer, that adds $9,990 to their yearly income.
According to New York’s Department of Education, public school teacher salaries usually start around $56,711. Glassdoor reports that the average base pay for lead teachers at a popular New York City charter school is $63,291. Similarly, the base wage for teachers at a top private high school in New York, according to Glassdoor, is $60,396.
I talked with multiple current teachers at Fusion, and all generally told the same story. They came to the school with the intention of being a teacher–and the jobs were advertised as flexible and financially sustainable. But all the teachers I spoke to have had trouble making a living. Last summer, Damlos-Mitchell tells me, he had to go on unemployment. This is not an unheard-of occurrence; other Fusion teachers I spoke with faced the same issues. Multiple teachers told me that the administration even encourages them to go on unemployment during the summers.
Over the last year, the teachers at the Manhattan campus have come together and formed a union–something never before done at the private school, which spans at least 45 locations. The organizing efforts began last spring and continue today. While Fusion has officially recognized the union–after months of lobbying and persuasion–the administration and the teachers are currently embroiled in collective bargaining. What the teachers want is simple: wage transparency and promised, consistent hours. They want to stay at the school and continue teaching while earning an actual living.
Fusion has been resistant to the teachers’ demands. Its business model is built upon a fluid conception of employment. It charges tuition that is comparable with the top private schools in the city, while paying its teachers low wages with few benefits.
By helping to organize the new union, Damlos-Mitchell tells me he just “wanted stability.”
The idea of “freedom” punctuates Fusion’s ethos. It first launched in 1989 as one lone school in suburban San Diego. Fusion’s founder, Michelle Rose Gilman, was a tutor at a local mental health center, which closed down. She decided to open up her own private tutoring program, which got bigger and bigger until it became its own stand-alone institution. The school followed the same model that it does today–personalized, individual classes that are devised and executed by a lead teacher.
In 2008, a company called the American Education Group acquired Gilman’s school and secured a $40 million investment from the private equity group Winona Capital Management. AEG’s vision was clear: replicate and expand. In the press release, Peter Ruppert, AEG’s CEO, declared “our interest in acquiring Fusion Academy was fueled by our desire to partner with the school’s executive team and replicate their successful model in various markets across the country.”
Today, Ruppert still has that plan in mind. He describes Gilman to me as a “classic entrepreneur.” She saw a need for her services, and ultimately built them into a thriving school. Now he has super-sized that vision and is scaling it up. Ruppert tells me he was looking for a model that could expand in precisely this fashion.
“The future of education would be about customization, individualization,” he says.”Our teachers have to be mentors first and teachers second,” adds Ruppert. His background is in business–not education. “I just got into this because I was a passionate education reform advocate,” he claims.
Before founding American Education Group, Ruppert was president of the National Heritage Academies, a controversial Michigan-based charter school company. Past reports show political ties between National Heritage’s founder and U.S. secretary of education Betsy DeVos. In 2016, Ruppert told local Michigan press that DeVos was “not anti-public schools … She’s pro-parent and pro-student. At the end of the day, she’ll do whatever she thinks is necessary to provide the greatest educational opportunities for all students in America.”
Last year, another private equity group–Leeds Equity Partners–bought a majority stake in Ruppert’s company for an undisclosed amount. Ruppert remains CEO, as well as a member of the board. The school’s aggressive growth plan is apparent–as soon as I started reporting this story, I began seeing endless tracking ads for Fusion, following me around the internet.
Ruppert tells me Fusion is committed to working with the campus’s union. “Teachers are viable to our success,” he says, and he hopes the negotiations lead to “a powerful win-win relationship.”
He adds that the company tries to listen to teachers–through surveys and other queries–to assuage concerns.
“The Park Avenue group decided to work with the union–it’s a vehicle they chose,” he says solemnly. “The more important thing is, how do we do what’s best for kids?”
Chris Gisonny, another New York-based teacher at Fusion, was very intrigued by what the school offered. “The more I saw, the more I thought ‘wow, this place is interesting,'” he tells me. “I never wanted a job more than I wanted this one.” He loved the academic freedom Fusion afforded to both students and teachers.
“It allowed me to explore different things, and continue learning things myself,” Gisony says. He could teach philosophy, art history, and even film classes. The motto Fusion repeats to teachers is ‘you are your own entrepreneur.’
Gisonny noticed that the students were different, too. While they may have chosen Fusion for various reasons, the one-on-one model introduced him to young people from different backgrounds just hoping to succeed at school. “Most of my students have been brilliant,” he says. “I really do love teaching these kids.”
But the work conditions have made it difficult for Gisonny and his colleagues to offer up the world-class education Fusion purports to sell.
“There’s a sense that the teachers have three jobs on top of one another,” he says. There’s teaching, of course, as well as mentoring–which is an important facet of the school’s educational offerings–as well as the office tasks. All these issues compound because the teachers are paid only a minimal hourly wage. Teachers also say they aren’t given ample time to prepare for their classes. “They give you five minutes per class for a two week pay period,” says Gisonny. “That’s very little.”
He adds that the administration sometimes recommends that teachers plan during 10 minute breaks between classes, or that teachers end the classes early and give students an independent assignment. “This feels like cheating,” Gisonny says.
What makes matters worse is the fluctuating hours. “I was expected to have complete availability for at least eight hours a day, without necessarily having those hours filled” with paid classroom time, says Ryan Wicker, a math and science teacher and department head at Fusion.
Before a semester begins, says Gisonny, there’s a rush, on the part of teachers, “to fill up your schedule as much as possible.” Every few months, there’s a new mood–the question permeates “what’s this semester going to look like?” After all, the teachers’ wallets depend on how many classes they are able to teach.
But even when Fusion teachers are able to secure a full schedule of classroom time for themselves–which means at least some financial stability for the next few months–they apparently have trouble preparing for the varied course load. When Wicker first joined Fusion, he was teaching eight to ten hours a day straight. It was just insanity, he says. “You have no mental time to shift between radically different subjects.” At one moment he’s teaching seventh-grade math, and then five minutes later he needs to create a lecture on advanced chemistry. “You’re giving yourself a crash course in a subject minutes before you teach it,” says Wicker. It seems to be a consequence of how little prep time Fusion is willing to pay for.
This leads to another important facet of Fusion. While it’s not a special education school, it is certainly marketed toward kids who didn’t thrive in traditional education settings. Wicker, for instance, has been given a range of students with specialized needs, without any resources to really help him out. He tells me about being assigned a chemistry student who was legally blind. “I got two days notice on that class,” says Wicker, who cannot read Braille. “I did the best I could,” he says.
Ultimately, Wicker persuaded the administration that Fusion didn’t have the capacity to teach this student; “It was a moral issue,” he says.
For years, teachers say, Fusion has been plagued by these problems. But the school, as a business, is growing at a fast clip. Over the last ten years, Fusion has opened over 45 campuses in 10 states. All the while, it recruits teachers but refuses to give them contracts. Gisonny and others saw unionization as a way to perhaps get teachers to stay at the school.
“As the years progressed and we saw people leave,” Gisonny says, he and his colleagues saw a union as perhaps “the first step toward trying to tackle this [teacher retention] problem.”
Colleagues began talking about trying to address their workplace issues head on. Casual talks turned into more formal meetings with the United Federation of Teachers, and soon the group realized they likely had a majority of support for a union among instructors at the school.
Once the teachers’ intentions were known, the administration tried to fight back. The teachers were sent a series of emails questioning the unionization efforts.
One email sent to all the Park Avenue teachers on March 31, 2017, from the head of school and the company’s east coast VP of operations said in clear terms “We think that any decision to bring in a union would be a real mistake, both for you and for the school.” The email goes on:
Before you form your opinion on this matter, think about it practically. If the solution to your workplace concerns really was as simple as joining a union and automatically improving your wages and benefits, everyone you know would belong to a union. Unions would be the most successful businesses around. Instead, union membership has declined dramatically, and today, unions represent less than 7% of private sector employees like you in the U.S. We think that’s a revealing fact.
Additionally, it’s not just that a union may fail to bring promised improvements. Our concern is that a union could make things considerably worse. What if the union fails to secure any changes of significance for you? What if someone else’s wages go up, but yours go down? What if merit increases go away? You definitely won’t get your money back, and you won’t be able to “fire” your agent. You will still be represented, and the Union will still charge you all significant dues. You have colleagues who have experienced that exact scenario.
Further, what if becoming union has a substantial negative impact on our unique workplace culture? Unions can foster an “us vs. them” mentality not only between administration and staff, but between staff who have different perspectives on the issue. We are already seeing some signs of pressure and tension, and we have just begun this process. That’s very concerning to us.
Other emails obtained by Fast Company, like this one from Fusion’s Head of School on April 17, pointed out that a union would collect dues:
SUBJECT: Educated Decisions – Fact of the Day
FACT: If the Union wins the election, it will undoubtedly insist that you all pay dues every month, whether you wanted the Union or not, whether you voted for the Union or not, and whether you think the Union is doing a good job representing you or not. Those dues will likely be deducted straight from your paycheck every month to ensure your timely and consistent payments.
“The propaganda was too textbook,” says Wicker of the administration’s anti-union efforts. However, he adds that for some teachers, Fusion’s material did work; some teachers wondered if the union effort would hinder the community and the students’ success by creating an adversarial atmosphere in the school.
To further combat the unionization campaign, the company flew in both Ruppert and Gilman to talk the teachers out of their organizing efforts. Both Fusion leaders delivered presentations about the academy’s business, and both of them cried at the prospect of the teachers forming a union. Not all teachers were moved by this display of emotion. One teacher cynically characterized the CEO’s reaction as “crocodile tears.”
Ruppert presented to the teachers some information about the school’s financials. According to the teachers, he wrote numbers about the company’s health in big black marker before the entire school. “He tried to make it clear,” says Wicker, “we can’t pay you any more.” Most teachers weren’t convinced. “We’re math teachers, some of us, so we kind of know when we’re being lied to,” claims Wicker.
Fast Company was not able to see a copy of that financial presentation for this story. But teachers say Fusion told its staff, during the presentation, that the company has yet to make a profit. According to the teachers, Fusion told them the company is not profitable because the school is investing its money in its growth. Ruppert confirms, for instance, that international expansion is a goal.
Generally, says Gisonny, Fusion’s leadership tries to give off an “inspirational and creative vibe.” But during these collective bargaining meetings, “you see the logic of their growth model. It’s about rapidly expanding,” he says, “and also making sure investors get a big return on investment.” The school, Gisonny feels, is “selling flexibility to their students and parents that they don’t necessarily have for the teachers, as well.”
Currently, no resolution has been reached between the unionizing staff members and the company. The first few meetings between teachers and the administration went well, establishing base terms and definitions. This heartened the teachers; it seemed to indicate that both sides were ready to make real change. But these days, negotiations are at a standstill.
The teachers are asking for paid planning time, a new payment structure, and salary guarantees. “I don’t think these are major changes,” says Gisonny. “If we have guaranteed numbers of hours,” says Wicker, “that alone would be a huge improvement for everyone.” Fusion has thus far refused every proposal presented by the union, and refused to offer the teachers any new counter ideas, according to teachers involved in the proceedings.
Ruppert, when talking about the union negotiations, points to the company’s unorthodox educational system. “The whole Fusion model,” he says, “is a very complex school model–it’s completely different from the traditional public or private school model … Because of that, our compensation model is unique as well.”
“We’re trying to do whatever we can within the constraints of the model and the program we have to make it work” for teachers, Ruppert says.
Ruppert won’t talk about specifics of the union conversations, given that the negotiations are ongoing. “Both sides have to have a win-win result,” he says.
Gisonny sees these negotiations as an opportunity. These discussions, he says, come down to a “philosophical difference” about how teachers should be paid. Through collective bargaining, Gisonny hopes that both teachers and administration can figure out “what is this place and how can it get better.”
All the teachers I spoke with agree that any system that can be put in place to make teachers’ livelihoods feel less precarious will help the students. These educators have seen kids form bonds with dozens of teachers over the course of a semester–only to see those teachers depart the school the following semester because of the lack of pay. Given that Fusion’s model relies on a student-mentor relationships, these kids often exhibit emotional responses to these perceived abandonments–for example, heightened behavioral problems, the teachers claim.
Ultimately, however, it’s the teachers who are paying the biggest price for the school’s low pay. It’s a dilemma, Wicker says.
Teachers like the school and they like the students, but they can’t pay their bills. “It’s not an issue of luxury,” argues Wicker. “It’s an issue of basic necessity.” The next collective bargaining meeting is scheduled for May 3.