Training Institute Draws Teams from Across the Nation

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This year's Center for School Improvement (CSI) Leadership Institute, held Jan. 28-31 in New York City, drew teams from 10 states, the District of Columbia and the Virgin Islands for four days of intensive training aimed at building the partnerships schools and districts need to succeed

Co-sponsored by the AFT and the Teacher Center of the United Federation of Teachers, CSI brings together school and district teams of teachers, union leaders, administrators, and community and nonprofit groups from school districts across the nation. A testament to how deep and wide the institute's reach has become over the years, this year's meeting saw teams from big-city systems like Chicago and Washington, D.C., engaged in CSI training just a few tables away from the team of educators representing Georgetown, Ohio: population 3,691.

"We often hear about all these initiatives and reforms focused around urban education, but we face the same problems," says Melissa Cropper, president of the Georgetown Federation of Teachers and one of three teachers in her district's six-person delegation at CSI. "We're teaching students, too, but we don't always see [reform] brought down to our level."

And when it comes to new challenges, such as meeting the demands of a new school reform law Ohio enacted last year, districts like Georgetown want to stay in control of their own destiny, says superintendent Tony Dunn. "We would rather create this reform than to have someone tell us how to do it. We think we have the skills, and we want to design it so it works for us."

AFT president Randi Weingarten addressed participants at the institute's opening session. In schools that work, teachers don't walk through the doors each morning "with a pit in their stomachs and a lump in their throats," she said. "They don't walk in thinking the principal is going to throw them under the bus, and the principal doesn't think that the union rep is going to throw them under the bus, either." (See related story.)

Some participating districts see CSI as a complement to projects under way in their schools. The ABC Unified School District in California has a long history of working through CSI to build labor-management cooperation, and the skills they have gained will put the district in a position to make the most of its newest opportunity: a grant from the AFT Innovation Fund to make collaboration part of the culture of the district's high-needs schools.

"We want to take the labor-management partnership that we have at the district level and go even deeper into the schools," explains Laura Rico, part of the ABC district's team at CSI and an AFT vice president.

The enthusiasm that participants bring to CSI is often matched by the facilitators themselves. "I really enjoy working with these educators," says Phyllis Walker, a CSI facilitator and staffer at the UFT Teacher Center. "They're here because they want to do the most amazing job with students."

Walker and other facilitators from the Teacher Center lead the training at CSI, and their talents have gained the institute a nationwide reputation for mixing high-caliber information with the type of enthusiasm and constructive energy that stays with participants long after they return home. So participants at this year's institute were stunned and saddened to learn that Gov. David Paterson's latest budget proposal eliminates state funding for Teacher Centers—threatening the right of New York teachers to the same exceptional professional development that draws CSI participants from thousands of miles away.

The money targeted for elimination "has actually gone into professional growth for teachers in a third of the schools across New York City," Weingarten says, and it is funding that focuses primarily on the highest needs buildings and neighborhoods. "We will fight nationally against that, and I know we will fight locally." [Mike Rose]

February 3, 2010