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Union cooperation helped St. Louis schools progress, both sides say

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Sept. 19, 2012 - The kind of change that only came through a teachers’ strike in Chicago has been achieved more easily in St. Louis through greater cooperation between the school system and the teachers union, the president of the American Federation of Teachers said Wednesday.

Visiting a St. Louis public school that was quickly converted over the summer from a former Imagine charter school that was shut down last year, Randi Weingarten praised the ability of the city schools and Local 420 of the AFT to work together to attract and keep good teachers.

“Collaboration and cooperation aren’t for the faint of heart,” Weingarten told a news conference after touring the Academy of Environmental Science & Mathematics Elementary and Middle Schools at 1008 S. Spring. “It’s not kumbaya. It’s hard work.”

For his part, city school Superintendent Kelvin Adams recounted the agreements he has been able to reach with Mary Armstrong, president of Local 420, in areas such as the St. Louis Plan, which helps mentor young teachers so they remain in the classroom and thrive at their jobs.

“This is a marriage,” Adams said of the relationship between the school system and the union. “We will sleep on the sofa from time to time, but we’ll never get a divorce.”

Weingarten, who visited St. Louis as part of a nationwide back-to-school tour, recalled a trip she made to the city three years ago, when the school system was still reeling from instability in the front office and turmoil on the board.

Earlier this year, she said, Armstrong told her she had to come back to see how the cooperation between the district and the union had improved the situation so much.

“You need to see what we are doing together,” she recalled Armstrong as saying.

Echoing Adams’ persistent call for the district to receive provisional accreditation from the state, Weingarten told reporters:

“With this push toward accreditation, you have turned the page.

“It took a strike to turn the page in Chicago, but this group of people has been turning the page by working together.”

Saying that she wants the city schools to achieve not only provisional accreditation but full accreditation, Weingarten said, “I want to be the biggest cheerleader I can for the partnership Kelvin Adams and Mary Armstrong and the parents have done together.”

The city schools have maintained that their latest state evaluation gives them enough points to gain provisional accreditation, but Chris Nicastro, Missouri’s commissioner for elementary and secondary education, says she wants the system to show sustained growth and progress, preferably for three years, before that change is made.

The system has been put on the agenda for next month’s state school board meeting to make its case. The system has been unaccredited since 2007, when an appointed special administrative board was put in place to run the district.

Adams said that gains that have been made since them “don’t occur in isolation. They occur with a partnership. They don’t happen without the support of Local 420.”

While at the academy, Weingarten and other union officials demonstrated Share My Lesson, a website where teachers can post their lesson plans and other ideas for use in the classroom, for other teachers to find and use. Modeled after a system in Great Britain that now has 2 million users, the American version already has more than 250,000 resources available.

They are aligned with the common core standards that many states have adopted, making it easy to share material on a nationwide basis. The effort’s slogan is “By teachers, for teachers.”

Weingarten said that in an age in which teacher evaluations depend on more measures than simply students’ scores on standardized tests, such collaboration is vital and is not something that teachers will be reluctant to take part in because they want to keep their good ideas to themselves.

“At the end of the day,” she said, “this is not about winners and losers. This is about helping all kids, and we want to make sure teachers are the best they can be.

“I wish I had had this when I was teaching, when I would get up at 4 a.m. in anguished panic and think, ‘I don’t know if what I have prepared for today is good enough.’”

The school that Weingarten visited – including a reading of “Green Eggs and Ham” – had been the Imagine Academy of Environmental Science and Math until all of Imagine’s charter schools in St. Louis were shut down by the state. About three-fourths of the middle and elementary school staff now at the school had been with Imagine at one time, district officials said.

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