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AFT members honored as 'Champions of Change'

Three AFT members were honored as "School Turnaround Champions of Change" at the White House on Aug. 21. The honorees are David Cicarella, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers; Kristen Hayes, an art teacher at Savoy Elementary School in Washington, D.C.; and Edward Wiest, a math teacher at Plenty Coups High School on the Crow Reservation in Pryor, Mont.

The White House event recognized several leaders who have helped implement dramatic changes in some of the country's lowest-performing schools to improve student outcomes and close achievement gaps.

To improve student and teacher performance and reverse a confrontational labor-management relationship, the Cicarella-led New Haven Federation of Teachers initiated a national model for school improvement. Through a highly collaborative process between the union, Mayor John DeStefano Jr. and Superintendent Reginald Mayo, a reform initiative was negotiated at the bargaining table in October 2009. It includes a progressive teacher evaluation system that provides continuous assistance to struggling teachers and removes chronically ineffective teachers. It also includes wraparound services for turnaround schools as well as increased teacher input and flexibility at the school level to adopt changes that school staff and the principal believe are necessary to help kids.

"While I'm thrilled to receive this high honor," Cicarella says, "I prefer to accept it as a group award for the collaborative efforts we made to improve teaching and learning."

Collaboration was key to developing and implementing the New Haven initiative, which other school districts are using as a model. "New Haven's success is based on shared responsibility—with the union, city and school leaders acknowledging that collaboration, not top-down dictatorial mandates, yields the best solutions," AFT president Randi Weingarten says.

Savoy Elementary School, where Hayes teaches, received a Turnaround Arts grant from the President's Committee on the Arts and the Humanities, which is designed to narrow the achievement gap and increase student engagement through the arts. The grant was based, in part, on Hayes' "Color Is Life" school transformation project.

"There is no doubt in my mind that arts education is a very successful tool to promote higher achievement and motivate kids to attend school," says Hayes, a member of the Washington Teachers Union. "Art and other performing arts can be integrated into math and science and other subjects while it taps into all the senses."

Weingarten says Hayes' award is an acknowledgment of the importance of the arts for a robust education. "Sadly, while budget cuts are reducing or eliminating art and music, we know that these programs actually motivate kids to come to school and get them excited about learning," she says.

Wiest, a teacher for 29 years who has taught for the last 13 years on the Crow Reservation, is a member of the school improvement labor-management team and chairs the local Montana Behavioral Initiative Committee. Plenty Coups High School is one of three high schools enrolled in Montana's Schools of Promise Initiative, a three-year, $11.5 million project aimed at turning around the state's persistently lowest-performing schools. Plenty Coups' math and reading scores have soared with instructional changes and access to wraparound services like healthcare and other programs for students and families.

"The teachers and administrators decided to get on the same page and collaborate," says Wiest, a member of the Pryor Education Association. "Our kids are poor, but we set high expectations for them and put best practices behind those expectations, and our kids are achieving. We also started making home visits so parents' voices were being heard, and we let students make decisions in the classroom."

Says Weingarten: "As Ed and Plenty Coups High School can attest, when teachers and administrators collaborate and implement programs to help kids overcome very difficult out-of-school factors, kids have a much better opportunity to excel."

Each of the AFT honorees also has a post about them on the White House's Champions of Change blog. [AFT press release]

August 21, 2012