04/15/2010

Weingarten Praises Cooperative Reform Approach in Providence

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Carla Caliri's school has been identified as a persistently underperforming school. Caliri, who teaches second-graders placed in the English as a Second Language program, wants people to know that her students "work so hard." Their parents work hard too, she adds.

But effort, as all teachers know, doesn't always translate into a passing grade. And when Caliri's students' performance is measured against education standards, all too often the class comes up with a failing grade.

Caliri was one of more than a dozen teachers AFT president Randi Weingarten met when she toured Providence, R.I., schools April 14. Weingarten was in town to discuss the labor-management school improvement plan that state education commissioner Deborah Gist approved earlier this month for the Providence school district's four persistently underperforming schools, including Charlotte Woods Elementary School, where Caliri teaches. The plan is unique because it is the first time a labor-management partnership has been incorporated into a restart model proposal for a school improvement grant.

Weingarten hailed schools superintendent Tom Brady and Providence Teachers Union president Steve Smith for "using what we know works to turn around schools—and that is collaboration."

"The easy thing to do is to point fingers at each other and to find everyone else to blame for things not going the way they should for kids in the classroom," Weingarten said. "Instead, you have the district and the union working together to turn around struggling schools. What we have here are people who would rather be successful than win arguments."

Borrowing a sentiment from former President Harry Truman, Brady said: "It's amazing what you can do when you don't care who gets the credit."

Randi Weingarten at Providence, RI ES

Supt. Tom Brady and AFT president Randi Weingarten visit with students at Charlotte Wood Elementary School while Providence Teachers Union president Steve Smith, pictured standing behind Weingarten, looks on. Photo by Constance Brown.

Brady noted that the district held 27 meetings with parents, staff and community members to discuss the best school reform model, and "overwhelmingly, it was 'let's work together.'" At the school level, each plan will be different—tailored to the school and students. When teachers come back in the fall, there will be a solid plan at the district and school levels, he said.

"Superintendent Brady could have chosen any model," said PTU president Smith. "He chose labor-management."

While the union and district have about 120 days to develop the specifics of the plans for the four schools, Smith said "there will be a lot of different ingredients," and one of those ingredients is that "we are going to be placing trust in the people closest to the kids.

"If you are a betting person," Smith said, "forget the lottery. Bet on Providence teachers."

In addition to Woods elementary (grades K-5), the schools affected by the redesign are Lillian Feinstein Elementary School (grades K-5), Roger Williams Middle School (grades 6-8) and William B. Cooley Health and Science Technology High School (grades 9-12). Cumulative enrollment at the schools for the 2009-10 school year was about 1,900.

Randi Weingarten at Providence, RI MS

AFT president Randi Weingarten visits with Annette Pesaturo's 8th grade English class at Roger Williams Middle School. Photo by Constance Brown.

  Weingarten visited the Woods and Williams schools with Brady, Smith and AFT vice president Marcia Reback, who is president of the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals. Stakeholders, including Mayor David Cicilline, state Senate president M. Teresa Paiva-Weed, state Sen. Maryellen Goodwin, several city council members, PTU board members and several classroom teachers, discussed the collaboration during an informal breakfast meeting at the Providence Career and Technical Academy.

"This partnership reflects the shared commitment to ensuring that there is an excellent teacher in every classroom, which is the single most important factor of a child's success in school," said Cicilline, who noted that Providence schools are working with extraordinary success in the face of diminishing resources. (On April 13, the Rhode Island House of Representatives approved a $52 million cut in local and school aid that was part of a $220 million state deficit reduction plan for the current fiscal year.)

The collaboration on school reform is a byproduct of the trust that has developed between the PTU and the district, Weingarten said, adding that trust isn't something that can be negotiated. "Trust is earned."

For PTU and the Providence Public School District, the trust that led to the labor-management school reform plan was earned when the parties started working together on an AFT Innovation Fund grant project. The grant, jointly awarded to the Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals and the New York State United Teachers in October 2009, is funding a multidistrict approach to developing a more rigorous and meaningful teacher evaluation system based on multiple indicators; it includes a peer assistance and review component. Providence is one of the participating school districts. [Kathy Walsh, video by Matthew Jones.]

 April 15, 2010