Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Educators Aren’t Just Welcoming Change, They’re Leading It

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By Cindy Long

Jenna Marvin, a media specialist at Howenstine High Magnet School, doesn’t buy into the perception of some that the National Education Association (NEA) and its members resist change and reform.

On the contrary, at her school in Tucson, Arizona, educators aren’t just welcoming change and reform—they’re leading it.

“We’re fighting very hard to save schools,” Marvin says. “We’re embracing change, so we can meet the needs of kids today, not those of 20 or 30 years ago.”

Who are the kids of today? A lot of them look very much like the kids at Marvin’s school.

At Howenstine, students are low-income. They’re English language learners. They’re special education. They’re at high risk of dropping out. But Howenstine is a service-learning magnet school, and a designated site of NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign, which works with educators, schools, local associations, and districts to focus attention on raising student achievement in struggling schools.

With these designations, students are drawn to Howenstine by a desire to connect their classroom with their community, which research shows raises achievement and keeps kids in school. They’re also drawn to Howenstine because it’s a small school where struggling kids get individual attention from educators who put in the extra time and the hard work to help all students succeed.

While opponents of public education have been attacking teachers and unions, calling them greedy and concerned only with paychecks, benefits, and the status quo, a revolution is taking place at Howenstine and other schools across the country. Educators like Marvin are turning around low-performing schools by leading reform and bringing about significant change.

Such leadership for student success is part of NEA’s bold new action agenda to transform the teaching profession, announced last December by NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. The plan—Leading the Profession: NEA’s Three-Point Plan for Reform—had a clear message: Teachers must take the lead, and they must take responsibility for their profession.

“NEA aims to ensure that teachers’ expertise isn’t confined to the classroom,” Van Roekel said. “Teachers should have more opportunities to strengthen their skills and knowledge and inform policy decisions that affect the classroom.”

The three-point plan calls for raising the bar on teacher quality before new educators reach the classroom; making sure that teachers remain at the top of their game throughout their careers; and helping teachers lead reform by helping them become community and policy leaders. The Priority Schools Campaign is integral to putting educators at the forefront of reform efforts.

Giving Teachers a Voice

Educators have always been willing to accept changes to better meet students’ needs; they just didn’t want those changes foisted upon them without having a chance to offer their input. What’s different here is that educators now have a respected voice in the process, and the union is leading the reform effort rather than being pulled along behind it.

“Instead of everyone from the outside telling us what to do, they’re working with us,” says Marvin. “We know these kids, we know the school, and we know the community. Who better than teachers to lead the reforms?”

Union-led reform can’t be accomplished without collaboration, and NEA members at priority schools across the country are teaming with parents, principals, community organizations, and elected leaders to raise student achievement.

At Howenstine, they kick-started the process with a school-based assessment and improvement system called KEYS (Keys to Excellence for Your Schools). NEA collected data from parents, teachers, education support professionals, and administrators for a picture of where Howenstine stands on KEYS indicators at high-performing schools. That way, they can easily discover what’s not working, and, just as important, what is working for them—such as the service-learning model in a small school setting.

“We offer a community that allows students to shine, who might not do so in a larger school,” says Marvin, who moved to Tucson eight years ago to escape the harsh Chicago winters. She was attracted by the sun, the desert, and the giant Saguaro cactuses that dot the Sonora hills.

In fact, it was a project on the Saguaro cactus that led to one of Marvin’s proudest moments in her 20-year teaching career.

A park ranger came to talk to the school about Saguaro National Park’s “Saguaro Census,” which takes place every 10 years (on the same schedule as the U.S. census) to track the population and the health of the cactus.

A shy student named Megan was inspired by the presentation. To help with the census, she arranged a field trip for her class.

“What made me the most happy,” Marvin says, “was seeing Megan step up and take a leadership role. This wouldn’t have happened for Megan at a larger school. The small setting and her relationship with her teachers and peers allowed her to feel safe and be a star.”

Read the full story at NEA Priority Schools

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