AFT Locals Shine at National Collaboration Conference

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An impressive roster of AFT locals took the spotlight when teams from 150 school districts gathered in Denver Feb. 15 and 16 for a fresh look at how school stakeholders can work together to improve schools, even in the most challenging times.

The Advancing Student Achievement Through Labor-Management Collaboration conference brought together union leaders, superintendents and school board members from 40 states. The high-profile event highlighted school district partnerships that illustrate how systems that work to build trust and shared accountability enjoy big returns: a new willingness to take risks and a strong, shared commitment to the type of school improvement that keeps the teachers' voice in key decisions, and student achievement on an upward path. A testament to the broad appeal of this approach was the conference setup itself. Attendance was huge at an event where participation was voluntary, open only to systems committed to sending union-administration-school board teams and to sustaining those collaborative relationships in their schools and communities.

The event was sponsored by the U.S. Department of Education in collaboration with the AFT, the American Association of School Administrators, the Council of the Great City Schools, the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, the National Education Association, and the National School Boards Association, with support from the Ford Foundation.

The gathering was designed explicitly to help change the narrative about school reform—reminding the public that, while pitched battles may steal the headlines, it's the collaborative, work-the-problem approaches that are really getting the job done for students nationwide. That point was illustrated by the 12 school systems showcased in breakout sessions at the conference: ABC Unified School District in California; Baltimore City; Denver; Douglas County, Colo.; Green Dot Schools in California; Helena, Mont.; Hillsborough County, Fla.; Montgomery County, Md.; New Haven, Conn.; Plattsburgh City, N.Y.; St. Francis, Minn.; and Winston-Salem/Forsyth County, N.C.

The AFT locals featured at the conference show that we can "walk the walk" when it comes to collaboration, AFT president Randi Weingarten told the Denver audience, and collective bargaining drives much of this work. She commended the huge crowd of union leaders, administrators and local elected leaders for stepping up "in this toxic environment to say, 'this should be about working together to help our kids.' "

The AFT president also highlighted the conditions needed to ensure that collaboration becomes a movement, and not a just a moment, in the history of public education. Trust, shared accountability and support must be built and sustained case by case, at the local level, she said. Community engagement is also a must—support that is best built through outreach based on school solutions rather than intractable problems. And government at all levels must be prepared to invest trust in the frontline—offering the strategic flexibility needed to support proven, effective approaches developed at the building level.

Many of these elements were on display in conference breakout sessions. Leaders from Baltimore City, for example, described how the groundbreaking new contract negotiated and ratified last year came after years of hard work. "The biggest piece is trust," said Baltimore Teachers Union president and AFT vice president Marietta English, who described how labor and management have built a solid track record of working together on issues over the past several years and fostered rich conversations at the building level that informed and engaged teachers. That is the heavy work of collaboration, Baltimore presenters said, and there is no shortcut for any district serious about getting stakeholders to move beyond their comfort zones and build the type of partnership that encourages risk-taking.

Several conference sessions touched on the difficult work of building these partnerships at a time of tight budgets and broad attacks on public employee unions. Breakout sessions from the ABC Unified School District and Plattsburgh City, N.Y., traced the roots of collaboration to similar periods of adversity—strikes from decades past—and said the partnerships that ultimately grew out of those crises are helping them navigate the tough school budget climate today.

"This is just the start of a conversation," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told the audience. Responding to a question, Duncan said he was "deeply concerned" about attacks on teachers' collective bargaining in the states and their potential to jeopardize the work undertaken at the conference. But Duncan assured district teams that the administration was committed to supporting and expanding the work on display in Denver. [Mike Rose, video by Brett Sherman and Matthew Jones]

February 18, 2011