Union Champions Equity Schools for Neediest Students
By Barbara Moldauer
Smack in the middle of America’s heartland, a mid-sized Midwestern city is turning conventional wisdom on its head. Union leaders and district administrators in Evansville, Indiana, are confronting challenges as partners, not adversaries. In 2009, they developed — and are now implementing — a groundbreaking strategy, called Equity Schools, that aims to transform schools through professional development for teachers and extended learning time for kids.
The target is the three worst-performing schools in the 37-school Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corporation: Delaware Elementary School, Howard Roosa Elementary School, and McGary Middle School. Their student population, which totals 1,200, is 60 percent white, 26 percent black, and 3 percent Hispanic. Poverty is so rampant that nearly 90 percent of the students qualify for free- or reduced-price lunch. Even on snow days, students in two of the three schools can get free lunch and adults can buy it for just $2.25.
The Equity Schools strategy is a welcome break with the past. “Just the act of working together is a step forward. Everything was mandated before,” said Keith Gambill, president of the Evansville Teachers Association. The new approach has also proved challenging. As Gambill observes, “Freedom is a gift, but it comes at a price.”
At the outset, union leaders and district administrators agreed on a general framework for professional development — nothing more. “We ratified the contract with ‘to be developed later,” said Debbie Hartz, a professional development coach (one of 48 in the district) who taught math and elementary school for more than 30 years before becoming one of two instructors (the other is an administrator) in the newly established Equity Academy, which prepares teachers to meet the special needs of students in Equity Schools.
Equity Academy aims to equip teachers to succeed
The union and the district developed the Equity Academy together, based on input from participating teachers. The resulting program is rigorous: 40 hours on Saturdays and after school on Wednesdays (missed sessions must be made up) culminating in a comprehensive oral examination (138 of the first class of 150 passed). Teachers receive $20 per hour to attend the academy, plus $1,000 upon satisfactory completion of the program.
At the union’s insistence, participation in the Equity Academy is voluntary. Union leaders and district administrators have also agreed that, starting in the fall of 2010, successfully completing the academy will become a requirement for teaching in an Equity School — a means of ensuring that teachers are equipped to succeed.
Teachers have responded enthusiastically to the strategy their union crafted. “We thought maybe half the current teachers would participate in the Equity Academy,” said Hartz. ”Ninety teachers from other schools also wanted to participate. We had to turn more than half of them away because enrollment was capped at 150.”
Brett Clark, a math teacher with eight years of experience who currently teaches at Washington Middle School, explains his decision to enroll in the Equity Academy this way: “I live in the McGary district, and I kept thinking, ‘That’s where my son will be going in five years.’”
The academy was hard on many teachers at first. Hartz said, “We told them, ‘Your plate is empty. Fill it with what improves learning for the kids — you decide what that is.’ Many found that hard and said, ‘Tell us what to do.’ They didn’t become comfortable with the new approach until halfway through the course.”
Hartz continued, “As a profession we’ve said, ‘You can teach or you can’t — it’s a gift.’ Now, we need to figure out what works and why. Attitudes need to change. No more ‘I’ve always done dinosaurs, and I’m going to keep doing them!’ No more ‘Close the door and just let me teach!’ We need to talk, collaborate, and learn from one another. I was naturally good at teaching math, but not reading — I worked at it and learned from other teachers.”
Empowering teachers — and teachers taking ownership
In Evansville as elsewhere, educators tend to disparage traditional professional development. Vince Bertram, superintendent of the Evansville-Vanderburgh School Corporation, describes it as “sit and git sessions — a speaker gives you information and you never see that person again.” Teacher Clark compares it to “looking for a needle in a haystack — hunting for something you can pass on and use with your kids.
“This was Evansville teachers helping Evansville teachers and I really liked it,” Clark continued. “We learned to think outside the box without a safety net. I’m a techie — I love PowerPoint — not a hands-on, artsy-craftsy type. Then I worked with someone who was good with graphic organizers and foldables. I used what I learned to create a 3-D pamphlet on the Pythagorean Theorem. The principal came to evaluate me the first day I used the new approach and it went wonderfully — for me and the kids.”
Kristal Dellay, who has been in the profession five years and teaches English, social studies, and reading at McGary Middle School, notes the emphasis on empowering teachers in both the Equity Academy and the Learning Leadership Cadre, a district-wide program with Brown University in which she also participates. “Many schools are striving for teacher empowerment — instead of change from the top down, change from the bottom up.”
Dellay, like Hartz, observed that not everyone is comfortable with the new approach. “When we have team meetings at my school, some teachers say, ‘Tell me what to do.’ Being really engaged entails taking initiative — it’s a different hat to wear.”
Within a common framework, each school has its say
More learning time — for teachers as well as students — is the linchpin of the Equity Schools strategy. Each school can add up to 20 teaching days for students per year, plus five professional development “data days” during which teachers learn to analyze and use data to enhance student achievement.
The school day will stay at 7 hours, 15 minutes. But how that time is used may change — for example, one Equity School will be serving breakfast in classrooms to increase learning time.
“We didn’t lengthen the day because that would disrupt extracurricular schedules throughout the city,” said Hartz. “We also looked at research — what’s best for kids. Many middle school kids take care of younger siblings, so a longer school day doesn’t work for them.”
Meeting students where they are
The realities of students’ lives and needs have shaped the entire strategy. “When schools are chronically underperforming,” says Bertram, “some point to ineffective teachers or leaders. What we’ve discovered is that these schools have a high percentage of students who start three or four years behind and just can’t catch up.”
Building students’ confidence in their ability to achieve is an important part of the process. “Kids at McGary have a mentality that they’re failing — they may not even realize they see themselves that way,” says Clark. They don’t have tons of parent involvement or support systems — they’re caught in a cycle of failure at school and struggle at home. We need to find ways to build connections with parents — to make the school more than a just a place where they send their kids.”
Clark finds that meeting parents on their home turf is a good way to build connections. “I visit them at home,” he explains, “because a phone call, letter or email is making contact the way a bill collector would — and that’s not good.”
Dellay agrees that personal connections are crucial. “Literacy skills are a challenge for some of our students — they don’t grow up in rich environments. So we’re focusing on what we can control: making connections and team building. We’ve added days at the beginning of the year — similar to what many colleges do — where teachers spend time with students, get to know them as people, and encourage them to take pride in their school and their own behavior. There’s an old adage: Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”
Increased efficiency pays dividends in professional development
The school district is paying for enhanced professional development by cutting costs elsewhere. “We’re using targeted cuts, not across-the-board,” Bertram said. “Everything is not created equal — we set priorities. Increasing class size or cutting great teachers affects kids, so it’s off-limits.”
The district saved $8 million by revamping distribution systems and consolidating support services to increase efficiency and eliminate duplication. Administrative staff who had been scattered among four sites now work in the same place. The district put its central office — a historic building in a prime location — on the sale block. The proceeds will be used to remodel a warehouse, which the district already owns. The move will bring long-term savings in utility costs, which are expected to keep rising, along with energy costs, as regulation of carbon emissions and other climate-control measures take hold.
Bertram has also succeeded in doing what Congress has been talking about for years: cutting health care costs. “We did it by going on the open market and getting competitive bids,” he said. “Another company offered to do the job for 22 percent less ($3.7 million) than the vendor we had been using. We’re a big group — 3,300 people — and health insurers want our business.
“We need to talk, collaborate, and learn from one another.” — Debbie Hartz, Equity Academy instructor
“Freedom is a gift, but it comes at a price.” — Keith Gambill, Evansville Teachers Association president
“Students don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.” — Kristal Dellay, middle school language arts teacher
“We learned to think outside the box without a safety net.” — Brett Clark, middle school math teacher