Make a Difference Tour: Collaboration Plays Well in Peoria

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Randi Weingarten in Peoria   "Will it play in Peoria?" It's a question sometimes asked to gauge whether a person, product or idea will appeal to the mainstream. Today, collaboration is playing in Peoria, and it's getting applause.

The Peoria Federation of Teachers, the superintendent of schools, the mayor's office, businesses and the community have come together for one central purpose: improving the city's schools.

That collaborative approach is the chief reason AFT president Randi Weingarten decided to kick off the AFT's "Making a Difference Every Day" tour Feb. 17 in this central Illinois city. (Read the AFT press release on Weingarten's visit.)

Weingarten's first stop was the Glen Oak Community Learning Center where she was greeted by Illinois Federation of Teachers president Dan Montgomery, PFT president Bobby Darling, and teachers and support staff sporting AFT blue T-shirts emblazoned with the words "I Make a Difference Every Day."

"I came to Peoria to shine a light on what you do every day to make a difference in the lives of children," said Weingarten, who applauded Glen Oak staff for making the school a community hub with wraparound services that "deal with the whole child."

Glen Oak, like other schools in Peoria, has a highly regarded teacher mentoring and induction program. Weingarten told the 30 or so educators gathered in the school's library that so-called reformers would rather bash educators and advocate for the privatization of schools than do the hard work it takes to improve them. "We have to be about strengthening the institutions in which we work and the quality of the services we provide to kids," she stressed.

Peoria Federation of Support Staff president Andrew Brown, who greeted the AFT president when she arrived at Glen Oak, said Weingarten's comments on school reform were "spot on." All voices needs to be heard when it comes to reform, he said. "That includes the community, government leaders and those charged with educating children."

  Several teachers asked Weingarten about the recent events in Wisconsin, where teachers and public employees were in their third day of rallying to oppose Gov. Scott Walker's efforts to restrict their bargaining rights. The AFT president chastised the Wisconsin governor and other elected leaders there and elsewhere for demonizing teachers and other public employees in an effort to make it easier to cut state budgets. The tough economic times many states are facing were caused by the "recklessness of Wall Street," Weingarten pointed out, not by educators and working families.

At a press conference following Weingarten's meeting with the Glen Oak teachers, both Montgomery and Darling cited the AFT's collaborative approach to school improvement, noting that the same approach is being taken by PFT leaders and top school officials in Peoria. "If more districts and local unions were doing this kind of collaborative work, we'd see important and positive change for kids," Montgomery said.

Next stop: Manual High School

Peoria's Manual High School is a very different place from what it was less than a year ago. Today, the school has a longer day (for which teachers receive additional compensation), a block schedule, a common planning period for teachers, a heightened focus on parental involvement and a new cadre of community volunteers. These and other significant changes were jointly planned and implemented by the PFT and the school administration, and spelled out in a memo of understanding.

"Bobby [union president Bobby Darling] and the union were very good about working with us" on making sure these changes were made with the involvement and support of faculty, Manual's principal Sharon Kherat told Weingarten.

The change at Manual that everyone—including the teachers Weingarten met—agrees has made the biggest difference is the increased focus on professional development. The extended school day includes an hour of professional development that often covers topics such as classroom management strategies. The high school also has a robust mentoring program for new teachers as well as a well-established AFT Educational Research and Dissemination (ER&D) program.

"The focus here is on how we can do better and how we can help each other do better," said PFT member Susan McCabe, who is the lead instructor for the ER&D course "Foundations of Effective Teaching." McCabe, who is also a mentor teacher said that veteran teachers "serve as a sounding board for new teachers."

Support for the extended day and the other innovations at Manual, which covers grades 7-12, has come from a federal School Improvement Grant.

Final stop: Luncheon with the mayor, superintendent of schools

With the partnership between the PFT and the school district set to be unveiled to the business community the next day, union leaders, top school officials and Peoria Mayor Jim Ardis gathered for lunch at a downtown Peoria steakhouse to make final plans. They were joined by Weingarten. "It creates a huge amount of public confidence" when the community sees the administration and labor working together to improve student achievement, Weingarten told the group, which included school superintendent Grenita Lathan.

The goal of the following day's meeting "is to get the message out to businesses and others in the community about the collaboration that we have with the administration and school board to help our students," explained Darling. "We need to share with them the good things that are going on in our district."

Mayor Ardis praised Darling for his leadership in helping to bring all segments of the community together around reforming schools. "Respect for the union has never been higher," the mayor said. [Roger Glass/photos by Adam Gerik/Video by Matthew Jones and Brett Sherman]

February 22, 2011