Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Can Teacher Power Save Schools?

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By Alain Jehlen

In a sunny courtyard at Los Angeles’ sprawling Jefferson High School, three freshmen girls are writing a radio script about a tornado.

Teacher Nicolle Fefferman has asked her class to write scripts about being caught in a natural disaster. The girls’ plot line: They’re having a party to celebrate wonderful news when a tornado uproots a tree and kills them all.

Tornadoes are rare in Southern California, but the event they’re celebrating in their play is real: One of their classmates has gotten pregnant.

“Babies are valued, and it’s accepted that girls will get pregnant young,” explains Fefferman. Which is one of the many challenges she faces in helping her students succeed in school and the job market.

But Fefferman’s not making excuses for Jefferson’s low test scores and high drop-out rate. “Our school is a failing school. What we’re doing isn’t working. That’s unacceptable,” she says to a colleague over lunch.

So the Jefferson faculty is going to take responsibility. Actually, the Jefferson faculty fought to take responsibility. Jefferson was one of 36 Los Angeles schools that the LA school board put up for bid last summer, inviting proposals from charter school operators and others. Most people thought the bulk of these schools would become charters, but Fefferman and her colleagues at the other schools pulled a surprise. With help from their union, United Teachers Los Angeles, staff members got together with parents and administrators at each school and started drafting their own proposals. Fefferman, a UTLA chapter chair, led the effort at Jefferson. They visited other schools, they read, they put in nights and weekends. Retirees came back to help draft the proposals.

In early February, advisory votes in the neighborhoods served by the schools favored the plans written by the school-based teams over all the outside proposals.

As decision time approached, the smart money was still on the charter operators, but on February 23—at almost the same moment that a Rhode Island superintendent was announcing she would fire every staff member at her low-scoring high school—the LA school board accepted the teacher-led team proposals for 29 out of the 36 schools.

First the celebration.

Then more work: Now they have to deliver.

Jefferson High, and all the other schools, must be different when they reopen this fall than they were when they closed for the summer.

At Jefferson, the plan calls for a more personal learning community. Ninth grader Jozue Barcenas can tell you about it as well as any adult. “We’re going to have a 40-minute period every Tuesday for getting to know a teacher,” he explains. “They’ll run clubs. A lot of people here have problems at home. They need to be able to talk to a teacher.

“I have a teacher I can talk to—Mr. Torres, the music teacher,” he adds. “A lot of kids talk to him.”

Another way to make school more personal: Jefferson, which has 2,000 students, will split into five autonomous mini-schools. Each will control its budget. Mini-school councils will choose their principals and when there are openings for new faculty, they’ll select them.

In late May, UTLA organized a weekend training session for school team members. They held workshops on the nuts and bolts of getting each school ready to launch.

Nicolle Fefferman didn’t go to the training session. She spent her Saturday morning helping one of her star students, a senior girl she’d known since ninth grade, go to college. The girl got into UCLA and UC Berkeley, but isn’t eligible for any government aid because she’s undocumented. So Fefferman drove her to the airport for a quick trip to Berkeley (paid for with Fefferman’s husband’s frequent flyer miles) to interview for a private organization scholarship.

It worked: The girl got the scholarship, and several more that she scrounged on her own. Next year, she’ll be a Berkeley freshman.

Tomorrow, she graduates from Jefferson High.

This article first appeared on the NEA Priority Schools Campaign Web site. To visit the site and learn more about union-led efforts to transform public education, click here.

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