It was billed as "CSI: the Next Generation" but the intrepid union, district and community leaders who traveled to New York City for the Jan. 21-24 event can certainly be forgiven if they sometimes slipped (on the wording, if not on the streets) and called it "CSI: the Inundation."
New York City got blasted: More than two feet of snow fell precisely when the 2016 Center for School Improvement meeting was in high gear. (See the photo below from one of the participants.) And, fortunately, the inclement weather had a way of playing into some of the real strengths of CSI, which mixes training for school and community leaders with lots of time for individual district teams to meet and confer on their schools back home and opportunities for true collaboration.
Just ask the team from California's ABC Unified School District (pictured below). It included union site representatives and their administration counterparts at Cerritos High School. "The team sees a good school but they want to be a great school," reports local union president and CSI participant Ray Gaer. "Forced to stay together for multiple days, they ate together, they celebrated together, they froze together—but most important, they appreciated each other and listened to each other" as they reviewed and refined improvement plans.
As a result, "the CHS team is coming back with a plan on how to facilitate schoolwide leadership training that will give teachers voice," Gaer reports. "Most importantly, it will illustrate how and why everyone's voice is important in the decision-making process."
There was also little doubt that the timing of CSI was spectacular on the macro level—coming only weeks after the enactment of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. The new keystone federal education law offers constructive opportunities to fundamentally reset policy in the post-NCLB era, particularly in systems where educators, administrators and the community work hard to find common voice and purpose in shaping the schools that all children deserve.
"This meeting couldn't have been more timely," AFT president Randi Weingarten told the 120 participants from New York to California who attended this year. "The work you do is going to have a major say" on how elements called for under ESSA, such as new state accountability systems and community-developed school improvement strategies, take shape in schools back home. Under ESSA, states have the chance to break free of standardized testing's total grip, to change the context and make education "accountable for other things that help kids learn," she said.
"Broadening the definition of what constitutes accountability is the biggest change and the promise" of the law, Weingarten said. First, however, communities must come together on what the priorities must be, and CSI can help hone that skill.
Every year, the institute brings together union-district teams from across the nation for training that combines voices and know-how with data and research to help schools improve. The event includes opportunities for participants to tailor the sessions to what's happening back home—linking their own data and needs to the current research and relevant strategies. Along with best practices, the institute also provides school teams and partners with time to meet in groups, developing and refining collaborative leadership structures, equity plans, accountability outcomes and other needs specific to their system. And the work continues after January, with team follow-up consultations and assistance from the AFT. "I know how to fight, and every other union leader and superintendent [in the room] knows, too," Weingarten told the audience. "This weekend is about doing it the other way."
The Austin experience
CSI featured a presentation by union, district and community leaders from Austin, Texas, who spoke about a partnership forged at a time of drastic state cuts, reductions that would have closed schools in the district and carved deeply into the budget. The union, the administration and the community responded to the challenge by forging a working partnership that not only addressed the fiscal threat but also led to an exciting new effort to enhance wraparound services and introduce the community schools model into the district.
It often takes a crisis to kick-start lasting collaboration, said Ken Zarifis, president of Education Austin. The prospect of shuttering schools is "the quickest way to involve the community," and, for the union, it also presented a critical moment when it was important "to take a step back and let the community lead."
One of those leaders, Allen Weeks of Austin Voices, told the CSI audience that he became involved at a community meeting called to discuss plans for closing the local middle school. He remembered sitting through the proceedings, thinking "there is absolutely nothing good going for kids here tonight," and it prompted him to work with parents and neighbors to save the school in 2007. Since then, the school-community alliance has only grown richer and more effective by directly involving parents, teachers and administrators in the school's transformation plan. Today, it boasts strong academic performance and other features like a new family resource center, which has been a key to the turnaround, Weeks said.
This new, constructive relationship also has put the district in a solid position to expand what works, said Austin schools superintendent Paul Cruz, who joined the conference via WebEx. The tone has gone from "challenging" to frank and constructive on issues that range from charters to testing, he said. And the key was getting to a point where all parties agreed that continual conflict and acrimony simply didn't work. "We just didn't want to live like that anymore," Cruz explained.
New faces, richer offerings
This year's institute put a premium on engaging union-district-community teams, whether it was their first or their 15th time at CSI. Trainings in team building, communications, data-informed decision-making and professional development to support student achievement were augmented with seminars for veteran participants. The institute also was supported with a national partners expo, putting teams in contact with representatives from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, the Institute for Educational Leadership and the Schlechty Center. And participants had a chance to look at the impact of chronic absenteeism in a discussion led by Hedy Chang, director of the advocacy group Attendance Works.
General sessions also featured a deeper dive on ESSA, highlighting how the law is putting new tools and opportunities at the disposal of states and communities and is "shifting away from federal mandates into more state control of schools," explained Rob Weil, AFT director of field programs. He urged attendees to familiarize themselves with the growing collection of information and resources on the AFT website, to continue to maintain and enrich coalitions that had helped create the groundswell for a new law, and to question anything they're hearing locally about ESSA that could be promoting misinformation and myths.
Whether relations at the top are good or strained, always "the goal is pushing labor-management cooperation down to the school level" in 1,800 buildings, said Michael Mulgrew, president of the host United Federation of Teachers and an AFT vice president. And today, "we're really fortunate" to have a City Hall that is taking collaboration seriously as it expands prekindergarten.
"It could not have happened if there was not true collaboration" on all fronts for such a bold and necessary move, Mulgrew said, and the skills that help to sharpen this type of effective teamwork are what CSI is all about. "When you go back, take this work with you."