Utah: For Schools and Associations, Priority Schools Campaign is a Real Opportunity
By Sara Jones
First, I’d like to set the stage for you a bit. Utah is not a collective bargaining state. We are also a local option state. I’m going to give a little bit of background and then talk about where I think we’re going, because I think for us the Priority Schools Campaign is a real opportunity. It’s an opportunity for us to build relationships in our locals, it’s an opportunity for our locals to build better relationships in some school districts that have had poor relationships, and it’s an opportunity to change schools that we’re hearing from our local leaders need to improve. The Utah Education Association (UEA) wants to help in that process of improvement. So, all of this coming together is a great thing for us.
Early on, the way we got information out to our local leaders was through a council of local presidents meeting that we have monthly at our UEA headquarters. Every local president in the state attends that meeting and it’s a great opportunity for us to be able to share information with them.
But even though we were able to get information out—put it on their radar so they could pay attention and talk with their superintendents—not all School Improvement Grant (SIG) applications were handled collaboratively by the school districts. As well, we’re still working to create better access and relationships with our state office of education. We weren’t really invited into the process early so we knew what the state office had in mind. But, we had a meeting with our state superintendent some months ago and said we need better access. And, he’s really come through. So, I’ve got to say, that’s changing for the better.
What we found when the Utah State Office of Education released the applications and the names of the grant winners was that two of the local associations that were in the large urban districts that received the most money, had no idea their district had applied. So, you’re starting behind the curve there because they didn’t know what was in the application. The summer was spent doing quite a bit of catch-up by informing local leaders about the applications and discussing the specific implications of the grant, since the school districts had left them out of the process.
On the other hand, we had two other local associations that were involved in the process with their school district. They were consulted and they saw the application in advance before it was submitted and had a chance to comment and had a pretty positive outlook about where this is headed. One of those is a very small school with six faculty members in Southern Utah that borders the Navajo Nation and they’re very optimistic about the process. The other is an urban school district that has three elementary schools involved and they’re feeling pretty optimistic. All four districts selected the transformation model and we were very pleased to see that.
What we’ve tried to do first and foremost is get information out to our local leaders. So we started with a statewide strategy meeting with the UEA president and executive director, our NEA regional representative, every UniServ Director and local president from all the districts affected, and myself, as the state SIG contact.
As a group we walked through the grants together and discussed them. We discussed questions such as: ‘what are the implications here,’ ‘what do you need to be aware of,’ and ‘what do you want to know from us.’ We started at that level and also gave them a chance to talk with each other. For all of the locals to hear from each other and strategize with each other I think was really helpful. And we’re continuing that process, getting together about every other month and sharing information from the UEA to the locals and from the locals to the UEA.
In one of the districts awarded a grant, we’ve been strategizing with them individually and offering that same opportunity to other locals as they become ready. We’re starting with a 60-day information blitz in one school, because what we found was that since teachers were not consulted in the application process and were told after the fact about the grant, there was a lot of confusion about the terms of the grant. There’s been misinformation as things have changed during the implementation process, so what it looked like initially is different from how it is looking now.
Teachers don’t really understand what it’s going to mean for the contract, as far as hours and salary and transfer policy. The district has been inconsistent in communicating to teachers. So for us to be able to work with those schools and provide information to them is a terrific membership opportunity. Here’s a way for the local teachers’ association, the state and the national to be a resource and a support in a very visible way. To be in the building in a way that supports teachers and helps them do what they want to be able to do for kids.
In this 60-day information blitz, the first step we took was to bring the building Association Representatives (AR) into a meeting where basically we just shared the grant details with them since teachers hadn’t seen the grant application. We shared with them some of the implications that it will have. The members don’t have a contract—it’s a written agreement—so we discussed what the implications were for the written agreement, listened as they worried about what the implications were, and vented for a little while…and then started to shape the discussion around what we should do.
The second step was for the ARs to go back to the building, talk to five people, hear what they were concerned about and what they want to know about the implications of this grant. The ARs brought that information back and we just had our follow up meeting last week. We gathered all that information together and are now shaping what we need to share with staff in the building. We’re hoping that this is a way to position the association in communicating effectively with members and non-members alike. If the district is leaving questions unanswered for now, how can the association help to answer questions that the teachers have? We’re going to compile this all into some easy to share information and then the ARs can go back and talk to the same five people and ask them to talk to five more people. That’s where we’re starting.
I think the grant process also, unfortunately, highlighted poor relationships that exist in some districts. And the local associations have been very positive in saying they support the idea of the grant, which is to improve schools that need improvement, and they want to build those relationships and make them better. I think this has highlighted an area where we can do better and these locals are saying ‘you know we want to build these positive relationships and more collaborative relationships.’
So I think our experience with the SIG applications and the Priority Schools Campaign is that, as a local option state, this campaign is allowing us to be seen as a resource and a support. It’s positively highlighting the things that we can do.
Sara Jones, Ph.D. is Director of Educational Excellence and Community Outreach at the Utah Education Association