Weingarten tour highlights school partnerships that work

AFT President Randi Weingarten continued her national back-to-school visits with a two-state New England swing that showcased the type of trust, accountability and collaboration communities need to spark concrete improvement in their public schools.

Photo by Thomas Giroir

In Massachusetts, Weingarten visited schools in Lawrence and Lowell, meeting with students, teachers and elected officials at Wetherbee Elementary School, Oliver Partnership School, and Pawtucketville Memorial Elementary School. The Sept. 4 visits drew outstanding media coverage, and each school illustrated how partnership between teachers, their unions and administrators has revitalized classrooms and the surrounding communities.

“With real leadership and real help from the AFT and Lawrence Public Schools, we’ve proven that teachers at Oliver Partnership School can do a nice job,” said second-grade teacher William Mahoney. The impetus for Oliver Partnership came when teachers approached the Lawrence Teachers’ Union to see if their local could help them design a new school that would give frontline educators a real voice in daily decisions. The plan took root, the school opened in 2013, and teachers’ enthusiasm about the new building has only grown since then.

“I love the energy here,” said teacher and instructional coach Mary Kennedy. “The Oliver Partnership School is a community that’s all about student success—and we are going to see that happens.”

“When we put together solutions that work—to help kids, to engage members, to involve the community—then real change happens,” Weingarten told teachers at a roundtable discussion in Lowell later that day. She was joined on the visits to the Bay State by an impressive roster of school and labor leaders: AFT Massachusetts President Tom Gosnell, Lawrence Teachers’ Union President Frank McLaughlin, Lawrence Superintendent Jeffrey Riley, Massachusetts Elementary and Secondary Education Commissioner Mitchell D. Chester, United Teachers of Lowell President Paul Georges and Lowell Superintendent Jean Franco.

The next day, Weingarten visited schools in Connecticut, accompanied for much of the day by Gov. Dannel Malloy.

Photo by Matt Jones

The school visits started in Meriden at Roger Sherman Elementary, one of several schools to introduce expanded learning time in the district through an AFT Innovation Fund grant. Teachers, their union and the district worked together on these efforts to expand enrichment activities focused on academic knowledge and skills, as well as art, music, nutrition, fitness and other activities.

For students, “I think the program is really going to add to their education and help them reach their dreams academically,” said Roger Sherman fifth-grade teacher Renee Tellez, who adds that the extended day allows student access to intervention and support in small-group settings.

Visitors also stopped by to help the school system celebrate its teachers of the year and to tour one of two high school reconstruction projects, made possible by state contributions that Malloy called “the right thing to do” in a society committed to preparing the next generation.

Weingarten called the school system a study in resilience and determination and praised the results-oriented partnership that epitomizes the work. “When you see a problem, you roll up your sleeves and solve it. And frankly, that’s what I’ve seen in Connecticut over the past few years under this governor.”

In New Haven, teachers and the district chartered a new path of collaboration through a bold, outside-the-box contract that has empowered teacher voice, transformed and streamlined the evaluation system to support teachers, increased professional development and leadership opportunities, and boosted supports for educators and students. The contract laid the groundwork for teachers and administrators to continue to work together on school-level reforms.

A highlight of the visit was a roundtable discussion where teachers explained how contract improvements have yielded a seismic change in the school climate. Practitioners explained how the experience of feeling isolated, scripted and alone has been replaced by trust, support and the space to take risks—all of it supported with opportunities to learn collegially and grow professionally. Today, teachers feel they have the freedom to meet the individual needs of students through tailored instruction, to voice their opinions and change what isn’t working in the classroom, and to look to the evaluation system established through the contract as a path for concrete career goals and professional growth.

Among those joining Weingarten and Malloy on school visits in Connecticut were AFT Connecticut President Melodie Peters, Meriden Federation of Teachers President Erin Benham and New Haven Federation of Teachers President David Cicarella. [From staff reports/photos by Matthew Jones and Thomas Giroir]