Leadership institute: No cape required

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Teams from school districts around the country journeyed to New York City this month for training that lays the foundation for sustainable school improvement back home. Their venue was the 15th annual AFT Center for School Improvement (CSI) Leadership Institute, an event that brings together teachers, administrators and other key stakeholders for the type of training that promotes collegiality and trust in public education—the prerequisites of school reform that is robust and lasting.

The institute, held Jan. 24-27 at the Manhattan headquarters of the United Federation of Teachers, drew teams from California to Rhode Island and set a record this year for the number of participating teams with 10 or more members. The event is jointly sponsored by the AFT and the UFT Teacher Center.

Randi at CSI

At a time when so much attention is focused either on closing schools or on "action-figure" education reform (the unproven notion that public schools rise or fall through the work of one charismatic reformer), CSI bucks the trend by focusing on roll-up-your-sleeves training and teamwork inside the schools. Participants develop expertise in team building, professional development, data-informed decision-making and communication; and they are supported with strong follow-up back home. That approach, AFT president Randi Weingarten told CSI school teams, makes the institute not just a refreshing change of pace in today's school climate but also a delivery system with a proven track record.
"Fixing, not closing, schools is where I start" the discussion on school reform, Weingarten said, and training through CSI embodies that belief. The institute recognizes that real school improvement involves changes in both "process and practice," and it encourages teams to approach the work with both " urgency and persistence."

The necessary first step in the process, Weingarten stressed, is for parties to win each other's trust by building a climate where collaboration is possible, a climate where the goal is "finding ways to solve problems, not win arguments."

Springboard to action

Along with training led by Teacher Center staff, the institute also provided ample time for participants to explore AFT-developed resources based on today's major education themes: the Common Core State Standards, community schools, professional development and evaluation, and teacher collaboration through exciting new initiatives such as the AFT's Share My Lesson project. Also well received were general sessions, including one that highlighted the successful, active collaboration within the ABC Unified School District, a southern California school system that has attended several CSI institutes.


The four-day event also provided an opportunity for each team to engage in deep, candid discussions on challenges and opportunities their particular systems face—time that the teams put to constructive use. The 18-member team from the Lawrence (Mass.) Public Schools, for example, developed an action strategy with the superintendent and administrators that lays the foundation for a new system model: a "partnership school" guided by teacher-led decisions on instruction.

This year's institute also drew interest at the federal level. Jo Anderson, special assistant to Education Secretary Arne Duncan, participated in CSI and said he appreciated the institute's emphasis on improving schools through hard work and persistence among stakeholders. He worked with the team from Providence, R.I., which is helping to finalize plans for the launch next month of United Providence (UP!), a union-district collaboration to improve three public schools in the system. Duncan is scheduled to be in Providence for the launch, and he is expected to name Anderson as the department's chief liaison for the project. The AFT Innovation Fund supports an extended-learning initiative tied to the effort.

Teams also heard from AFT executive vice president Francine Lawrence, former president of the Toledo Federation of Teachers, who spoke about the positive gains that Toledo schools had enjoyed after participating in several CSI institutes. Key to that success, she said, is CSI "backyard assistance," customized technical help that supports teams back home; and Lawrence urged participants to take "skills back and apply them from central administration to union halls."

UFT president Michael Mulgrew, who is also an AFT vice president, told CSI participants how proud the local was to host the institute again. "This is about management and labor coming together to say 'we're trying to solve problems,' which I think is terrific." [Mike Rose/photos by Miller Photography]

January 28, 2013