Monday, April 27, 2009

Jennifer Dubin: From Picket Line to Partnership -- A Union, a District, and Their Thriving Schools

From Picket Line to Partnership -- A Union, a District, and Their Thriving Schools
by Jennifer Dubin
American Educator (AFT)

On October 21, 1993, the day before her members went on strike, Laura Rico experienced a swirl of emotions: anger, fear, nervousness. Her union, the ABC
Federation of Teachers, and her district, ABC Unified, had reached an impasse in contract negotiations. The district wanted to cut teachers’ pay and health benefits, and increase class size. A strike was Rico’s choice of last resort. As union copresident, she had notified the district that a majority of her members had voted to walk out of their classrooms. The night before they did so, Rico never made it home. For 24 hours she and a colleague stayed in the union office answering the phone. Teachers called to ask questions and to show their support.

For eight days, tensions ran high, especially when a principal turned on her school’s lawn sprinklers to soak striking teachers. The superintendent at the time, Larry Lucas, also protested. Each day of the strike, he would send Rico a Western Union telegram telling her the strike was illegal. Amused but not deterred, Rico posted each telegram in the hall of the union office so she and her staff could share a laugh.

Today in ABC,* teachers don’t need to picket and the superintendent wouldn’t dare communicate with the union president via telegram. In this district 20 miles southeast of Los Angeles, From Picket Line to Partnership A Union, a District, and Their Thriving Schools there exists a successful labor-management partnership. Comprised of the cities of Artesia, Cerritos, and Hawaiian Gardens, as well as parts of Lakewood, Long Beach, and Norwalk, the district has its share of high-performing schools with affluent or middle-class students, as well as schools that have historically struggled with low-performing students, many of whom live in the district’s impoverished South Side. Shortly after the strike, a new superintendent was hired and Rico extended an olive branch in an effort to end the hostilities. Since then she has partnered with successive superintendents to focus on improving teaching and learning—especially in the South Side.

Rico and the current superintendent, Gary Smuts, meet weekly. Their deputies meet monthly. And members of both the union’s executive board and the superintendent’s cabinet routinely call each other. The constant communication helps resolve problems and keep everyone’s time, money, and attention focused on boosting student achievement. The union and the district also cosponsor parent nights and professional development conferences specifically for the South Side schools. Not
surprisingly, those schools have thrived thanks to the increased support.

District and union leaders in ABC believe they can do more for their students if they work together. And so, they are taking their partnership a step further. They are fostering an atmosphere of collaboration within the schools themselves. Principals and building representatives, districtwide, now meet anywhere from once a week to once a month to discuss ways to improve instruction.

Sure, some teachers and administrators are wary of all this cooperation, but Rico and Smuts are nudging them along. Both want the few remaining skeptics to follow their example. And they hope partnerships elsewhere will begin to catch on. “I am
a better superintendent because I have a strong union president,” Smuts says. To some, that might sound like heresy. To him, it just makes sense. After all, he says, “we both want what’s best for kids.”

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