Nearing the end of a back-to-school tour across the country, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten stopped in western New York to shine the light on three model programs that show what can happen when the union and a district work together to do what's best for students — and educators, too.
Like any opening day of school, Weingarten found herself swept up in a whirlwind of activities at Kenmore West High School:
visiting ninth-graders in a unique high school transition program that has yielded positive academic and behavioral results;
learning about an ever-growing staff development center that provides teachers, support personnel and administrators with relevant professional growth; and
hearing rave reviews from participants in a peer assistance program.
"This whole tour has been about shining the light on good practice, and what you're doing here are perfect examples," Weingarten said. "I think it comes down to (providing) three things: trust, tools and time."
Many of the initiatives are common sense but certainly not commonplace, Weingarten said.
The programs have taken years of positive labor-management collaboration, as well as strong leadership by the Kenmore-Tonawanda Teachers Association and the Kenmore-Tonawanda School Employees Association.
Weingarten visited a freshman transition program that has grown into a full first day of character-building, diversity awareness and team activities that are revisited during a similar day during Regents week in January.
In one gym, a group of newbie ninth-graders were working together to get from one side of the court to the other, with skate boards, hula hoops and more.
"For them to be this engaged, working this closely together physically — plus as a team — is pretty cool," said Kenmore TA First Vice President Peter Stuhlmiller. "This certainly doesn't look like a bunch of kids who don't know each other on the first day of school!"
Weingarten agreed. "No, I'd expect a lot different body language and attitude," she said, leaning back and crossing her arms in mock disgust. The first day of school is often the time when kids either establish their turf, try not to call attention to themselves or will suffer silently.
Next, Weingarten stopped in an auditorium where students were watching dramatic clips from the Columbine shooting and learning about the consequences of bullying — even just laughing at someone who's being bullied.
Other freshman orientation activities included a fun "fashion show" of do's and don'ts by upperclassmen, plus some time for the ninth-graders to write a letter to themselves detailing their hopes and plans for high school. The letter is sealed and returned to the students at their senior- year breakfast.
"They find they grew up a lot," said Kenmore West Principal Karen Geelan. Since the orientation was started several years ago, attendance and grades have improved, while suspensions and fights have gone "way down," Geelan said. More ninth-graders have gotten involved in clubs and other activities, with encouragement from an assigned big brother or sister.
"All the research tells us ninth grade is a make-or-break year," Weingarten said. "This district treats it that way."
While investing early in its high-schoolers, the district also believes in investing in its staff. Kenmore Staff Development Center Director Elaine Altman said the ever-growing program serves teachers, support staff and administrators with relevant professional development opportunities.
The district puts money behind the initiatives: Twenty years ago Kenmore TA President Don Benker negotiated a groundbreaking contract in which teachers who complete at least 20 hours of in-service education receive a $2,000 stipend.
Last year, the vast majority of Kenmore's teachers met that requirement, with many far exceeding it.
Similarly, the district goes far beyond the norm in supporting and developing its peer assistance review program. Kenmore's PAR program, negotiated in the 1980s by longtime president Benker, is unique because new teachers receive parallel evaluations by both a mentor and an administrator.
In the rare instance of a disagreement, the case goes to the program's policy board, a joint panel of district and union appointees.
"I think it's very smart to have parallel tracks. When you have multiple measures you get rid of subjectivity," Weingarten said. Just as students cannot be judged by one test score, perhaps teachers shouldn't be judged by one person.
In a roundtable discussion with new teachers, mentors, union leaders and administrators, Weingarten heard how PAR offers a strong induction program and builds a more collegial atmosphere.
New teachers talked about receiving valuable, ongoing support and the importance of weekly half-day side-by-side work with their mentor during the first year.
"It sounds like kids get a master teacher sooner," Weingarten said. "You just embody the idea of doing what's good for kids and fair to teachers."
The AFT Back-to-School national tour includes visits to schools and colleges to see promising programs that can be replicated elsewhere.
Weingarten said highlighting exemplary programs is part of the national union's call for elected and school officials to do school reform "with us, not to us" so teachers are part of creating change rather than having it imposed on them.
Weingarten's cross-country tour began Aug. 27 in St. Louis and continued with stops in Houston, Baltimore, Portland and San Francisco before the Sept. 8 visit to Kenmore. She wrapped up the tour with stops in Boston and Philadelphia.