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Gold Medal Districts


{ It’s all about respect. }


By Alain Jehlen
There are all sorts of school districts in this great land of ours—big and small, rich and poor, well-run and disastrous. In some districts, policy decisions like professional development, textbooks, bell schedules, discipline procedures, and the rest are handed down as edicts from on-high.

And often, that doesn’t work out too well. In others, decisions are made by the staff members who do the actual educating and know best what they need to do an excellent job.

Here are two districts where staff have a full voice in decision-making. If your district doesn’t measure up, maybe you can use these examples as models for change.

Less Stress, More Teaching in Lincoln, Nebraska

Michael Jones (not his real name) wouldn’t stop. He was constantly interrupting other kids, putting them down, making teaching and learning impossible in Doreen Ainslie’s seventh-grade social studies class and in his other classes as well. Finally, he was sent to a specialized center for children who need more focus on discipline than the school can manage.

A few days later, he was sent back to Ainslie’s class.

Chemistry teachers Janet Braun, Bill Hollenberg (center), and Steve Long meet informally over lunch almost every day to talk over classroom issues.

Justin Vaughn Photography

That was to be expected. But there was one thing about Michael’s quick roundtrip that wouldn’t have happened last year: Before he returned, Ainslie received a copy of the special discipline plan the center designed for him.

It said that in the event of future disruptions, the principal would step in much faster than before, and there would be other clear consequences for misbehavior.

“In the past,” says Ainslie, “a student would reappear in my classroom, and I would not know what plan had been made to deal with him. I would have to take the time to track down the principal and find out.”

This simple but important change in procedures is one result of two years of meetings of a joint union-administration panel called “The Professional Committee,” or “ProCom,” which meets between formal contract negotiations.

What happened, according to Lincoln Education Association President Arlene Rea, was this: Teachers felt they were working too many hours. So the Association chose a random sample of several hundred members and had them keep track of their time. They found teachers were working an average of 16 hours a week beyond what their contract provided.

ProCom took on the task of figuring out how to cut back on those hours. The conversations weren’t always easy, but the group hammered out a list of 18 steps—short-, medium-, and long-term—that would ease the demands on teacher time. The changes ranged from getting the district print shop to relieve teachers of some of their copying, to having each school develop systematic rules and procedures for student discipline on which teachers could truly rely.

That agreement came last summer, and some schools have done better than others. “It’s still being worked on,” says Rea. About three quarters of the schools, she estimates, have their plans in place. One is Mickle Middle School, where, because of all those ProCom meetings, Ainslie didn’t have to chase the principal to find out what the plan was for Michael.

And since students know the plan and know it will be carried out, there’s less disruption. And more teaching!

Water Flows Uphill in Fort Wayne, Indiana

Fort

Fort Wayne Superintendent Wendy Robinson

Vorderman Photography

In the old days in Fort Wayne, Indiana, “water flowed downhill,” school librarian Rick Davis recalls. “Virtually all decisions were made at the system level, and teachers did what they were mandated to do.”

Or, as former elementary teacher Wendy Robinson puts it, “Downtown told you what to do. Nobody asked my opinion on anything.”

Today, it’s different: Critical education decisions are worked out collaboratively by the people who do the educating.

To many teachers across America, that may seem as strange and improbable as water flowing uphill, but in Fort Wayne it has become part of the district culture, say leaders of the Fort Wayne Education Association. “In the past, there wasn’t a relationship where you could put the hard things on the table, but now, we’re a partnership,” says FWEA President Al Jacquay.

The lynchpin of the system is each school’s “Quality Improvement Team” or “QIT,” which makes a wide range of educational decisions. The teams operate by consensus, and a majority of the members are teachers.

These teams are provided for by Indiana state law, but in some districts, principals appoint the members and dominate the teams. In Fort Wayne, since 2002, the teachers’ contract has specified that QIT teacher members must be approved by the union. “It changed the way things happened in our buildings,” says Steve Brace, an Association staffer who was FWEA president at the time. “The school is not the principal’s little kingdom.”

Find more gold-medal districts on the web

In Hillsborough County, Florida, teachers vote on their textbooks, and in LeCenter, Minnesota, the core of the professional development program is teachers offering feedback to each other’s videotaped lessons.

Does your district respect the staff? Share your good news on the members’ discussion board.

Jacquay says three quarters or more of the schools operate collaboratively—and FWEA is working to change the rest.

One school where the system works well is Northrop High School, where more than 40 percent of the 2,200 students are eligible for free or reduced-price lunches.

“My first year here,” says Northrop Principal Barbara Ahlersmeyer, “I analyzed the test score data and told everybody what it said. Now, they tell me what it says, and where we need to go, so they have ownership.”

The Northrop QIT discovered that while students seemed to read fluently out loud, they didn’t always understand what they were reading. So the team mapped out a program for improving reading comprehension. Teachers in small groups across the disciplines wrote specific plans and shared them online.

Does every staff member love the new system? No, says Davis, an FWEA building rep at Northrop. Some feel it takes too much time, he says, but most believe it helps them teach more effectively.

When the new clause was negotiated, the district’s chief bargainer was Wendy Robinson, an ex-teacher who learned that central office dictates were a bad idea when she was on the receiving end.

As a teacher, she was an FWEA activist. Today, she’s the superintendent, credited by FWEA with setting a respectful tone that goes beyond contract language. Says Robinson, “I am under no illusion that every day I’m right.” 

Send comments to ajehlen@nea.org

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Published In

1-Mar-09


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