Educators Aren’t Just Welcoming Change, They’re Leading It
Jenna Marvin, a media specialist at Howenstine High Magnet School, doesn’t buy into the perception of some that the National Education Association (NEA) and its members resist change and reform.
On the contrary, at her school in Tucson, Arizona, educators aren’t just welcoming change and reform—they’re leading it.
“We’re fighting very hard to save schools,” Marvin says. “We’re embracing change, so we can meet the needs of kids today, not those of 20 or 30 years ago.”
Who are the kids of today? A lot of them look very much like the kids at Marvin’s school.
At Howenstine, students are low-income. They’re English language learners. They’re special education. They’re at high risk of dropping out. But Howenstine is a service-learning magnet school, and a designated site of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign, which works with educators, schools, local associations, and districts to focus attention on raising student achievement in struggling schools.
With these designations, students are drawn to Howenstine by a desire to connect their classroom with their community, which research shows raises achievement and keeps kids in school. They’re also drawn to Howenstine because it’s a small school where struggling kids get individual attention from educators who put in the extra time and the hard work to help all students succeed.
While opponents of public education have been attacking teachers and unions, calling them greedy and concerned only with paychecks, benefits, and the status quo, a revolution is taking place at Howenstine and other schools across the country. Educators like Marvin are turning around low-performing schools by leading reform and bringing about significant change.
Such leadership for student success is part of NEA’s bold new action agenda to transform the teaching profession, announced last December by NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. The plan—Leading the Profession: NEA’s Three-Point Plan for Reform—had a clear message: Teachers must take the lead, and they must take responsibility for their profession.
“NEA aims to ensure that teachers’ expertise isn’t confined to the classroom,” Van Roekel said. “Teachers should have more opportunities to strengthen their skills and knowledge and inform policy decisions that affect the classroom.”
The three-point plan calls for raising the bar on teacher quality before new educators reach the classroom; making sure that teachers remain at the top of their game throughout their careers; and helping teachers lead reform by helping them become community and policy leaders. The Priority Schools Campaign is integral to putting educators at the forefront of reform efforts.
Giving Teachers a Voice
Educators have always been willing to accept changes to better meet students’ needs; they just didn’t want those changes foisted upon them without having a chance to offer their input. What’s different here is that educators now have a respected voice in the process, and the union is leading the reform effort rather than being pulled along behind it.
“Instead of everyone from the outside telling us what to do, they’re working with us,” says Marvin. “We know these kids, we know the school, and we know the community. Who better than teachers to lead the reforms?”
Union-led reform can’t be accomplished without collaboration, and NEA members at priority schools across the country are teaming with parents, principals, community organizations, and elected leaders to raise student achievement.
At Howenstine, they kick-started the process with a school-based assessment and improvement system called KEYS (Keys to Excellence for Your Schools). NEA collected data from parents, teachers, education support professionals, and administrators for a picture of where Howenstine stands on KEYS indicators at high-performing schools. That way, they can easily discover what’s not working, and, just as important, what is working for them—such as the service-learning model in a small school setting.
“We offer a community that allows students to shine, who might not do so in a larger school,” says Marvin, who moved to Tucson eight years ago to escape the harsh Chicago winters. She was attracted by the sun, the desert, and the giant Saguaro cactuses that dot the Sonora hills.
In fact, it was a project on the Saguaro cactus that led to one of Marvin’s proudest moments in her 20-year teaching career.
A park ranger came to talk to the school about Saguaro National Park’s “Saguaro Census,” which takes place every 10 years (on the same schedule as the U.S. census) to track the population and the health of the cactus.
A shy student named Megan was inspired by the presentation. To help with the census, she arranged a field trip for her class.
“What made me the most happy,” Marvin says, “was seeing Megan step up and take a leadership role. This wouldn’t have happened for Megan at a larger school. The small setting and her relationship with her teachers and peers allowed her to feel safe and be a star.”
Heather Bates, an English teacher and the Association representative at Howenstine, says a lot of the students wouldn’t do as well in a larger school. “They’re a little different, and they’re the kind of kids who’d be invisible in a large school,” she says. “But being different isn’t a bad thing here—it’s celebrated by the students.”
She says because students accept one another as individuals, they don’t form cliques. They cross social and ethnic circles to collaborate on service-learning projects as well as on their studies.
“Students who wouldn’t normally become leaders can develop leadership qualities here,” Bates says. “And students who are intelligent but may have struggled are now valued for their unique approaches to learning.”
The same goes for their educators. At Howenstine, collaborative reform has allowed teachers to develop their leadership skills. Their intelligence and unique classroom expertise is valued, and they have opportunities to expand that expertise and leadership with NEA’s targeted professional development opportunities.
Nonmembers have begun to take notice of the resources NEA brings to the table.
“People see that there’s more to NEA than car insurance and those little perks we like, which aren’t necessarily a draw for younger members,” Bates says. “But when they see action, support, and professional development that’s tangible with a direct payoff, they see that membership truly is valuable.”
Educator-led reform and collaboration not only brings value, it also brings about transformation.
North High School in Des Moines, Iowa, is another target site of the campaign, where collaboration is dramatically turning around teaching and learning. North High went from dead-last place in state assessments to the number two position in just under a year.
North High math teacher Amanda Dvorak attributes it to collaboration.
“My favorite part about teaching at North is the people and how well we work together,” Dvorak says. “The staff work so hard to make sure that kids are getting what they need, and there is something to be said about having the opportunity to partner with your best friends.”
She says the Priority Schools Campaign created professional learning communities where educators share ideas.
“It’s awesome to not have to do all the legwork to find new strategies and opportunities, and then have to figure out if they’re worth the time and money,” she says. “The campaign’s forums—like the Changes, Challenges and Collaboration forum in New Orleans last November—let us talk with other schools going through the same struggles. I didn’t realize how different yet similar schools are, and how a lack of collaboration could stifle what we’re trying to accomplish.”
It’s one thing to collaborate with other educators. It’s entirely new for Dvorak and her colleagues to be collaborative with administrators. Their new spirit of cooperation is changing the perception of NEA as a union concerned chiefly with protecting teacher interests.
“The campaign fostered a good working relationship with our administration,” she says. “We’re able to sit at the table and discuss together what’s best for our students, incentives that are non-divisive and evaluation processes that help instead of inhibit. Our voice is now heard.”
Although North Carolina might not be considered union-friendly—it’s a right-to-work state—the Priority Schools Campaign is still changing perceptions about public educators and what NEA has to offer to reform efforts.
Three years ago, Oak Hill Elementary School in High Point, North Carolina, had one of the lowest academic performance scores in the state. Two years ago, still floundering, it became one of the lowest-performing schools in the nation, with only 24 percent of students scoring proficient on state reading exams and 39 percent in math.
A new principal, both a Nationally Board Certified Teacher and a Guilford County Association of Educators (GCAE) member, was able to assemble a highly committed staff. Together, they made a strong start during the first year of the school’s federal School Improvement Grant.
As the school planned for year two, it became a target site of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign, which worked with school administrators and staff to provide resources and training, such as C.A.R.E. training (Culture, Ability, Resilience and Effort), to help raise achievement among minority and low-income students.
Oak Hill is located in a high-poverty area where 98 percent of students receive a free breakfast and a free or reduced-price lunch. Many of Oak Hill’s students and parents are immigrants who speak a combined 17 languages and come from Latin American, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
Last year, Oak Hill increased student performance on its End of Grade tests from 45.8 percent to 65.2 percent, a jump of 19.4 percentage points and the largest increase in the district. With the NEA’s help, educators are working toward more successes this year.
Part of that success will likely come from educators who actively sought out NEA’s C.A.R.E. training. “They felt they needed some new strategies for engaging the culturally and linguistically diverse students in their school community,” says Denise Alston, an analyst and trainer with the Priority Schools Campaign who provided the training.
“The Priority Schools Campaign gives us clout—it delivers training and resources the school system doesn’t have access to,” says GCAE President Elizabeth Foster. “This is a huge value for the membership dollar, and it’s an example of a sustainable concept that can be duplicated throughout districts.”
Foster says one reason education is attacked as a profession is that a contingent of Americans want to privatize public schools. They’ve tried to vilify pro-public school organizations like the NEA and convince the public that it collects dues for its own gain rather than for the good of the students. Union-led reform proves them wrong.
“The work of the campaign is a clear demonstration that we don’t just negotiate salaries and benefits or file grievances for our members,” she says. “We identify problems and find solutions to the persistent issues facing education today.”
Carrabec High School in North Anson, Maine, has its shares of persistent issues, the kind that plague a lot of rural, low-income schools. More than a quarter of the students live in poverty. Substance abuse, teen pregnancy, and dropout rates are high, while test scores have remained low. But then the high school was awarded a federal School Improvement Grant and became a target site of the Priority Schools Campaign.
Because of continued attention to raising student and community aspirations and to implementing a number of new programs allowing all students access to higher level math and English, the school has become a “shining star,” according to Jo Anderson, senior advisor to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who visited the school in February.
Between last year and this year, students’ Preliminary SAT scores in reading and mathematics improved from 17 percent proficiency to about 37 percent proficiency. Two years ago, a total of 69 students failed 134 classes. By the end of last year, only 33 students failed 49 classes. Of those who failed, most made up the credit over the summer.
This year Carrabec offers four AP classes; next year there will be seven, and enrollment in AP classes has increased from just three students last year to 76 students this year. The school added 20 minutes of instructional time to the regular school day, expanded summer school, and created a study skills class for students who need support.
“Everyone is working very hard, and we’re changing the conversation about what the association can do,” says Rose Mahoney, of the Maine Education Association (MEA). “Our members are excited, while nonmembers are intrigued by the resources the campaign brings. They see us come in and pay attention to what they’re doing every day on the ground level—we’re hearing their concerns, hearing their joys, and helping them in their jobs.”
Word has spread through the North Woods of Maine. At a recent MEA bargaining meeting, Mahoney said that an out-of-district teacher asked about the Priority Schools Campaign. A Carrabec educator had told him how it was making a difference there.
“He said they were seeing it in the kids, not only in their performance, but in their commitment,” Mahoney says.
Spreading the word about the Priority Schools Campaign is how NEA affiliates can strengthen their membership, says Georgia Association of Educators Uniserv Director Felecia Lee. In Georgia, the Priority Schools Campaign is concentrating efforts in Augusta’s three high schools—Laney High School, T.W. Josey High School, and Glenn Hills High School.
“Each One, Bring One” is an age-old membership recruitment adage of churches and other religious institutions, and Lee says the Priority Schools Campaign works the same way. When a group of educator stakeholders from Augusta, including a parent, an administrator, and a school board member, went to the Priority Schools Campaign forum in New Orleans, they brought home the message of collaborative reform and became NEA evangelists.
“The forum and the work going on in our schools puts us out there in a very positive way, and more people want to be a part of that work,” Lee says. “The Priority Schools Campaign is bringing together a community of people with a common goal. It’s in everyone’s interest for our schools to be successful, and the Priority Schools Campaign leads the way.”