Teacher takes 'engagement' to a new level

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You might ask why a young teacher from the Hudson River Valley in New York would be so dedicated, so fierce—and, some would say, so idealistic—as to leave her comfortable and settled hometown and head South to help rebuild houses in New Orleans, and later, schools, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

You might ask.

The answer would be that Rowan Shafer believes in unions.

She believes so strongly in the power of a union to unite a community and obtain the educational resources students need that she arrived in a torn-up town 10 years ago, eventually started teaching and joined the United Teachers of New Orleans.

Rowan Shafer with her studentsAfter she arrived at Morris Jeff Community School four years ago, a group of teachers there decided that a union would be the way to make the changes they knew would make their school better. Shafer had been drawn to Morris Jeff by a community that inspired her with its mission of operating an unusually diverse charter school that truly sprang from its Mid-City neighborhood.

"What our school is founded on is a lot of progressive values, including valuing teachers," Shafer says. The school's founding members, drawn straight from the local community, intentionally left the door open to union organizing, and some of those same founding members became teachers and administrators at the school.

Morris Jeff is trying to remain a teacher-driven institution despite its reformulation as a charter school in the Recovery School District, which is to say that it ran the risk of becoming just another charter stripped of teachers' voices in a landscape of charters. But neighborhood parents and teachers were committed to public education and felt they would have more latitude to retain the school's character if they consented to a charter.

Around 2008, about 40 Mid-City neighbors got together and began a conversation on what they wanted in a school that would be diverse, unionized and centered on community engagement. These parents knew what they didn't want, as well. They didn't want Walton foundation, KIPP or other models that would bring in prefabricated programs, and they said so.

"By the time we got a charter, it was really grounded in something," says Celeste Lofton-Bagert, a parent, co-founder and former teacher at Morris Jeff. "It had a political voice. We knew we had to be heard to get what we wanted. You cannot be 'nice' if you want to advocate for kids. You cannot be 'nice' if you want to advocate for public schools."

Through hard work and stick-to-it-iveness on the part of Shafer, Lofton-Bagert and fellow staff, Morris Jeff became part of the Louisiana Federation of Teachers through voluntary recognition in New Orleans—an oasis for union representation in that right-to-work state. Morris Jeff was the first charter school in Louisiana to unionize.

Last year, the teachers at Morris Jeff began to bargain their first contract with the school board. They developed proposals focused on institutionalizing teaching voice and creating a framework for student support and success. They are hoping to finish the contract this year and implement the changes this year or next. They've had several months of bargaining sessions to date and have made progress, Shafer says, but it's been slower going than they had hoped, with more pushback than expected. Their progress toward a first contract has been thoughtful, careful and deliberate.

"The whole reason we decided to organize our school is that we wanted to have a voice at school," Shafer says. "We're working at developing mechanisms for teacher voice."

The trouble with charters

Although Morris Jeff serves Mid-City, it does enroll students from all over New Orleans as part of citywide open enrollment. The results can be chaotic, Shafer says. One family may have each child at a different school all over town, and, adding to the confusion for families, all the charter schools are different types of charters.

Rowan Shafer teachingThat's because school "reformers," notably big business interests, stepped in after Katrina and dismantled the public education system. Despite claims of a New Orleans "miracle" after the hurricane, the results have been decidedly mixed. For example, 20,000 students whose families fled the city and stayed away have done better academically than those who came back. Students with disabilities and English language learners, as well as students of color, are being excluded from some charters. And last but not least, "charterization" has put an end to traditional neighborhood schools as children are bused across town.

Facing these challenges, teachers and their union at Morris Jeff decided to go slowly. For the first year after union recognition, they worked to make their presence felt. In the second school year, they worked with school administrators on a short-term collaborative project.

The leadership team created study groups to focus on key issues important to staff, notably professional development standards. "We thought that would be an easy win," Shafer says. "What could possibly be bad about that?"

Yet, the process bogged down. Although the school adopted the instructional strategies developed collaboratively, they were never truly enacted. The teachers then turned to UTNO for help with strategic planning.

The union "gave us the training we needed, the support that we needed," Shafer says. "It helped the community see the face of the union as someone personable and not an outside threat."

Meantime, the staff has been suffering from turnover. Shafer lays this at the feet of the charter structure itself. As a K-8 charter of about 650 students, Morris Jeff has few support staff, such as one-on-one paraprofessionals, no salaried psychologist or mental health team—despite the lingering effects of Katrina--no paid time for meetings and no duty-free lunches. The school's Spanish teacher is expected to double as ESL director, and there are not enough special education staff to meet students' needs. As a regular teacher, Shafer is expected to differentiate instruction from pre-reading through sixth grade.

"It's a charter school problem. It's unsustainable, which is why we started a union, to make it more sustainable," she says, pointing out that there's less structure and support in place than in a traditional public school.

Nonetheless, Shafer and her fellow teachers dream of improving learning conditions, identifying the top three requirements at Morris Jeff as better support for special needs students, a behavior support system and smaller class sizes.

"This feels really personal to me because Morris Jeff is the school in New Orleans that I feel could be what we want a community school to be," she says. "It feels crucial to me that our school ratify this contract—and not just ratify the contract but really and actually codify and honor teacher voice—to be a true community school that's diverse in representation, including whose voice is represented. Teachers are the ones on the ground every day who see and implement what works. We are the professionals."

Meanwhile, the journey continues until these teachers are able to vote on their first contract.

"We're very aware that New Orleans is watching," Shafer says.

She's right, of course, and now her whole union is watching—in admiration and in solidarity for one school's fierce defenders of teacher voice.

[Annette Licitra/photos by Nijme Rinaldi Nun]