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Sharing the Wealth

NEA's Priority Schools Campaign hosts a forum to discuss what really works to transform schools.
 

By Staci Maiers

School reform. It’s the hot topic du jour. It seemingly produces a daily silver bullet answer that changes with each person asked.

But what really works to transform public schools that have persistently struggled?

Research gathered by the National Education Association is revealing that sustainable success in transformation reveals itself through indicators of student, family and community engagement.

“When it comes to student success in priority schools, there is a road map,” said Sheila Simmons, director of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign, a movement by educators to significantly raise student achievement in low-performing schools. “We want to break down silos, connect educators who are doing the work and share best practices so great successes can be replicated.”

At the annual NEA Joint Conference on Concerns of Minorities and Women, held this year in Chicago, educators from around the country gathered to learn what really works from schools on a path to success —and hear how unions are playing a critical role in the transformation process.

Carol Montgomery, a high school special-education Social Studies teacher in Gwinnett County outside Atlanta, wanted to do just that—learn about best practices to share with her fellow members in the Peach State.

“I want to take this information back to my union so we can learn what’s working out there,” said Montgomery, who also serves as a cluster leader. “I was especially interested in learning more about the Priority Schools Campaign, both how it works and the resources it gives.”

Unions Leading Reform Efforts

The path to student success often begins with improvements in attendance and a decrease in discipline referrals, commonly called leading indicators. Success most often includes strong association leadership, according to the participants.

“There’s an unwillingness to accept complexity [associated with education reform],” said Henry Roman, president of the Denver Classroom Teachers Association. “We understand there are so many layers…sometimes the people who are non-educators, they just want to see outcomes, like student achievement, increased graduation rates; they fail to see that there are some intermediate steps to get there.”

Despite the labeling attached by political opponents, unions are actually leading reform—and results are beginning to appear.

North High School, one of four schools in Iowa’s Des Moines School District to receive a School Improvement Grant, implemented the transformation model with the full participation of the local union. In just under a year, it went from being dead-last in the district to the number two position.

“We had so many programs that we wanted to do at North High School,” said Greg Harris, executive director of the 2,000-member plus Des Moines Education Association. “The Priority Schools Campaign helped [administrators] to narrow it down.”

The school focused on students in the 25th to 45th percentile while implementing small group learning, increasing staff professional development and improving targeted reading. As a result, it improved in all three core curriculum areas—even as much as 19 percentage points in two of the three subject areas, including reading.

“When I used to go over to North, kids were out in the hall, talking loud,” said Harris. “I’ve seen a big difference” in student behavior, a chronic problem the school had combated. “The principal is on the union’s side, and they understand the work that we do.”

Out West, the union’s involvement in transformation efforts has been pivotal.


In Washington State, 100 schools were identified as low performing, with 29 schools receiving SIG funds. The Washington Education Association not only had a seat at the table, but it ensured the educator’s voice was amplified when talk of education reform was on the menu.

“Bargaining is a huge part of our work around school improvement,” said Ann Randall, a federal liaison state implementation specialist with WEA. “We conducted listening sessions in schools with our members and piloted an analysis of the federal guidelines to learn what was bargainable.”

Through NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign, Randall secured funding around cultural exchanges with various tribes in Washington State that helped form the Tribal Education Congress. The group meets monthly and has helped WEA build trust in the Native American community, a critical component of long-lasting, sustainable education reform.

“Members know where their dues dollars go,” said Randall. “In those [Priority Schools Campaign] schools, NEA is not just a name. In many ways, it’s a person.”

It Takes a Village

True collaboration among the local union, administration and school district emerged as an overarching theme for the dozens of educators from priority schools attending the conference. Like the African proverb, it does indeed take a whole village to raise a child.

Roman, a fifth grade teacher before becoming DCTA president, said two big lessons have emerged from his local union’s transformation work: parental and community involvement and political outreach and engagement.

“Parental involvement and community outreach is not a one-time event but a long, ongoing partnership, said Roman. “Building those relationships takes time, but eventually they pay off.”

Randall agreed.

“You just can’t start with the beginning of a SIG grant to start having a better relationship,” said Randall who works with several schools that operate on Native American reservations, like Wellpinit on the Spokane Indian Reservation. “It took a lot of work…especially for tribes that had been disengaged. Boarding schools were their history…so [the tribe’s] relationship with schools has not been good.”

And part of that community includes elected officials who may not always be pro-public education.

“I never thought that politics factored into the equation,” said Roman. “There are significant forces out there trying to do whatever they can to undermine the work we’re doing…Sometimes we’re mad at [elected officials], but there are no permanent friends and there are no permanent enemies.”

Doing Their Homework

Besides souvenir mugs, t-shirts and other keepsakes, NEA members are taking home some best practices and good ideas—as well as heeding advice of some lessons learned. Indeed, one of the most popular messages was that collaboration is an essential ingredient in school reform work.

“When [school reform] is district led, there’s no buy-in, but when the association is involved, you have caring leaders who are going to help struggling teachers,” said Carolyn Snow, an NEA member from Alta Loma, Calif. “When the association is involved, it feels more about a team collaborative. [The association] really wants to see you be successful with your students. [They] want the students to achieve.”

The Math and Science Leadership Academy, a school in Denver led by teachers rather than a principal, piqued the interest of participants.

“I would like to see at least one school in Gwinnett try it,” said Montgomery. “It would be interesting to see the results and whether it could work for us in Georgia.”

The session also provided a share-and-tell atmosphere. Just knowing that common issues exist helped to break down the barriers for some members.

“My school’s going through a lot of the same things, like professional development overload,” said Elena Garcia, who teaches English at John Glenn High School in Westland, Mich. “Everything’s always changing, and you never get to settle in.”

Garcia’s comment was met with an anonymous “That’s right!” from across the room.

Amy Wood, who teaches math and science at Ockley Green Elementary School in Portland, Ore., agreed that learning what’s happening in schools across the country has been helpful. “We can relate to what’s going on in Denver and Des Moines.”

Last year, the federal government identified 10,676 schools nationwide as in need of improvement. With more schools finding themselves on the priority list, sharing the wealth of information—including which reform efforts that didn’t necessarily work—was priceless.

“[Denver Public Schools] has been a testing ground for everything” said Roman, whose union worked with the district to implement a hybrid of performance pay. “If you’re going to set the student growth objectives, they should be challenging but achievable…Don’t make the same mistakes” of linking objectives with teacher evaluation, he warned.

That’s a key takeaway for Snow.

“When I signed up for the session, I really wasn’t sure what the Priority Schools Campaign was, but it sounded very interesting,” she said. “What I found out was the Priority Schools Campaign is all about the association working together with district administrators, the community, teachers and parents to try to improve failing schools which is an excellent, excellent, excellent thing that needs to be done.”

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