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Spotlight Shines on NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign

Five local leaders share their success stories with RA delegates

July 05, 2011
By Amy Buffenbarger

Just two years after the 2009 Representative Assembly mandated NEA to create a program that would focus resources to transform struggling schools, delegates had a front row seat to view how the union is leading the way to change the lives of students through NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign.

The campaign is a movement of educators across the country to help transform struggling schools by working with families, communities and government to significantly raise student achievement.

Collaboration is the key to this success, and schools from Maryland to Washington are implementing new strategies to build strong relationships between all stakeholders in a student’s education.

The hard work and dedication of educators in these priority schools often goes unrecognized, but at the 2011 NEA Representative Assembly in Chicago, examples of innovative and collaborative approaches to education reform at NEA Priority Schools Campaign sites were highlighted during a presentation in front of more than 8,000 delegates.

“Working in collaboration with local districts, community groups, businesses and other allies of public education, NEA members are improving student learning and making a difference in thousands of lives,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel to NEA RA delegates.

David Romick, Dayton Education Association President in Ohio, shared the story of how his union filed a grievance against the principal of Belmont High School to get textbooks for students in special education programs. The principal encouraged the grievance because he understood that the only way to get the needed textbooks was to go through the union.

Romick takes his responsibility to advocate for the teachers and support professionals seriously, and has worked hard to build and maintain mutually respectful relationships with administrators in Dayton. It’s the perfect example of what can be achieved when educators, administrators and the union work together for the students. “Through our collaborative work, I know we will find better ways to educate our children and our communities,” said Romick.

Des Moines Education Association President Melissa Spencer highlighted the recent success at North High School, an intensive support site of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign. At North, “learning was taking place, but the push to improve the school as a whole wasn’t coordinated or targeted,” said Spencer.

With help from a federal School Improvement Grant, programs were put in place like the one-to-one laptop initiative to give each student access to technology. Incorporating teachers' voices into the transformation process has also been a priority at North, which has improved the professional culture.

As a result, “we went from dead-last place in our state assessments to the number two position in just under a year,” said Spencer.

Adversarial relations in Utah between the Salt Lake Teachers Association and the school district were the norm for years. In February this year, SLTA President Susan McFarland traveled as a team with her superintendent and school board president to a U.S. Department of Education sponsored conference focused on improving labor-management collaboration.

After the conference they signed a Memorandum of Understanding to work collaboratively and the relationship has seen dramatic improvement. “A new relationship between adults is working for students and positive change is underway,” said McFarland.

Although these stories highlight some major breakthroughs and success, the work isn’t easy and collaboration on many issues doesn’t mask tension on others.

The Clark County Education Association (CCEA) in Nevada has worked closely with the NEA Priority Schools Campaign to bring resources to lower-performing schools. Clark County educators have received cultural awareness and English Language Learner training, and CCEA and NEA have worked together to facilitate community engagement opportunities. These partnerships and resources demonstrate that “teachers unions can be partners in school reform,” said Ruben Murillo, Clark County Education Association President.

However, CCEA has been fighting against pension contribution increases and the Clark County School District (CCSD) recently notified the union of a unilateral salary decrease without bargaining the issue.

Despite these tensions, Association members maintain their focus on boosting student achievement and creating professional learning environments. “While CCEA and the district have had difficulty with the transition of a new superintendent, what has remained is the forged partnership to assist our members in priority schools,” said Murillo.

In Indiana, there is a lawsuit against the state to block implementation of a new school voucher law that could cut funding to public schools by up to $65.8 million. Teresa Meredith, vice president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, is the lead plaintiff in the suit. Evansville Teachers Association President Keith Gambill is also a plaintiff, along with a public school superintendent, former state school board member, a public school principal, and Methodist and Baptist ministers and others.

But issues at the statehouse haven’t stopped Evansville educators from continuing to achieve student success through the Equity Schools program. There are three Equity Schools in Evansville that are being transformed with professional development for teachers and extended learning time for students. The ETA developed the program in collaboration with the Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corporation and they are now working to build community partnerships with the schools.

“By combining our existing strategy with NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign and its ability to leverage community resources, we’re on a path to make our schools an asset to the community worth fighting for,” said Keith Gambill, President of the Evansville Teachers Association.

Anyone who has ever spent a day in the classroom knows there is no silver bullet for education reform, and sustainable change takes years, not months. But the success and small victories along the way should be celebrated. Educators in priority schools understand the work that needs to be done to transform their schools, and they are doing it every single day.

Dayton, Clark County, Des Moines, Salt Lake City and Evansville are just a few examples of the results achieved by collaborative activity that includes the active leadership of unions. Check out to read more stories about what it takes to help students achieve.

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