Collaboration, cooperation move St. Louis schools forward

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Good things are happening in St. Louis public schools, thanks in large measure to the collaborative effort among the district's teachers, parents and administrators. AFT president Randi Weingarten visited the Academy of Environmental Science and Mathematics Elementary and Middle School on Sept. 19, as part of her back-to-school tour, to see the results of this collaboration.

A news conference featuring Weingarten; St. Louis school superintendent Kelvin Adams; Mary Armstrong, president of AFT St. Louis and an AFT vice president; principal Angele Burns; and Valerie Williams, head of a local parent group, highlighted the progress the district has made thanks to the partnership between educators and the community.

St. Louis public schools have been under state control since 2007 after losing accreditation. Next month, the Missouri State Board of Education will meet to determine if the school district has improved enough to earn provisional accreditation.

"People spoke of a turnaround in St. Louis, and look what's happened: Teachers, administrators and parents have been turning the page in working together with this push to provisional accreditation," said Weingarten. "It took a strike to turn a page in Chicago."

"We share a belief in our five-point plan," said Armstrong. This plan includes reducing class sizes, offering high-quality professional development, focusing on community engagement, expanding pre-K programs, and providing mentoring and support for new teachers.

Weingarten praised the academy as an example of a practical, meaningful partnership. The school had been an Imagine charter school until the state shut down the city's charter schools, displacing thousands of students. "You all worked together to make sure parents were not left in the lurch and students were welcomed," said Weingarten. "Collaboration and cooperation aren't for the faint of heart: It's hard work."

Superintendent Adams agreed, likening the partnership to a marriage. "We will sleep on the sofa from time to time, but we will never divorce," he said. "Students are too important."

During Weingarten's visit, teachers, parents and administrators were treated to a demonstration of AFT's new free online resource for educators, Share My Lesson, presented by Judine Keplar, a teacher and mentor at the school, and AFT staffer Heidi Glidden.

The AFT president then traveled across town to Buder Elementary School where she visited several pre-K classrooms and saw firsthand the successful expansion of pre-K programs in the city. This expansion has been bolstered by an AFT Innovation Fund grant, which was used to develop a peer-based model for improvement and delivery of early childhood professional development.

Weingarten's St. Louis tour began to wind down with a visit to the AFT St. Louis office where the local's retirees and other volunteers were running an Election 2012 phone bank. She thanked the volunteers for their time, dubbing them "heroes of the middle class. "We have people power. That's how you engage in elections—making phone calls, knocking on doors and telling people the real deal is what it will all boil down to." At her final stop, Weingarten had a similar message for an excited crowd of labor members gathered at the Glaziers and Glassworkers Union Hall, who were preparing to canvass the neighborhood. "The way we win this election is by walking the streets and doing those phones and engaging people." [Adrienne Coles]

September 20, 2012