January 2011
December 19, 2010

How negotiations can spark innovation

Author: Bernie Mulligan
Source: NYSUT United

If it's "drill and kill," kids don't want it," says Kevin Ahern, president of the Syracuse Teachers Association, explaining the success of his district's popular Urban Teachers Calendar.

The program — bringing quality learning opportunities to city school students during the summer — is one of many flexible, student-centered programs negotiated by NYSUT local unions across the state.

Each school designs a summer program, part academic, part enrichment, Ahern said.

Students don't have to travel far to benefit and they're working with teachers they know.

"It's an opportunity for teachers to learn and work together," Ahern said, because at least 25 hours of staff development is negotiated into the agreement. "It also addresses the needs of urban students who suffer knowledge loss over the summer."

The bargaining table is where many local unions find ways to meet the needs of their students, the aspirations of their communities and the concerns of educators who want the best environment for learning.

"Our members know their work is at the heart of quality education for all students," said NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira. "We always make improving student performance a factor in our bargaining."

The Sewanhaka Federation of Teachers represents 700 educators in five large suburban Nassau County high schools. Through bargaining, they created a "productivity period" for every teacher.

The union was able to reduce the typical eight 45-minute periods by five minutes to create a school day of nine 40-minute periods. The extra "productivity period" is used to provide extra help to students or to cover class periods for absent teachers.

The bargaining produced major savings for the district, which can be used for other educational purposes, by reducing the need to hire substitute teachers, which is now done only for long-term absences.

"Our members want their students to succeed and our communities to be proud of the schools," said SFT President Ro Mamo. "Using this contract language, students who had difficulty coming for extra help that is available before or after school can now get it during a free period in the school day."

In nearby Suffolk County, a popular program flourishes every Saturday morning in Copiague. Armando Marcenaro is one of six members of the Copiague TA who participates in an innovative English as Second Language program for parents and families of students.

Local President Tim Gavin said the program is funded through Title III — federal funds used to supplement existing state funding and provide service to English Language Learners.

The funds cover salaries, transportation and the breakfasts that parents and family members receive with their classes. "We concentrate on speaking, reading and listening, said Marcenaro, a 10-year ESL teacher. Students usually accompany their parents, benefiting from the additional help and language exposure they receive. Parents who want to be involved in their children's education no longer need to feel uneasy about their language skills.

"We want to help the parents and our community," Marcenaro said. "If we help the parents, they help the children."

In North Syracuse, teachers offer tutoring before and after school to at-risk elementary students. After-school tutoring is offered to junior and senior high school students; Regents review classes and SAT prep classes are provided to help build student capacity to succeed.

"It's in teachers' nature to support students and learning — which often happens before or after school," said John Kuryla, president of the 1,050-member North Syracuse Education Association.

The Extended School Day Program is for students who cannot attend school during regular hours because of discipline or medical issues. "This allows an education that otherwise would have been put on hold to continue," Kuryla said.

The North Syracuse contract, he said, addresses the many programs that benefit students and offers a fair salary to staff.

"Our local has a long-standing practice of ensuring pay for professional responsibilities," he said.

When administrators in Corning — one of the largest communities in the Southern Tier — raised the issue of performance-based pay in recent contract negotiations, the Corning TA used collective bargaining to rework that idea into an agreement for a district-wide incentive program to keep the focus on student achievement.

"This agreement has nothing to do with merit pay," said Billie Gammaro, president of the 500-member local. "We are all in this together, and this agreement stresses that teamwork and collaboration are the keys to student success."

The bonus paid to all members equally is based on district schools' performance on the state's student report card; each of the district's 10 buildings accounts for 10 percent of the overall award.

So, if nine of the buildings are in good standing with the state, based on annual report cards, CTA members receive 90 percent of the award that's allotted.

The money for the student-based achievement article is an agreed-upon amount, separate from negotiated increases in teacher salaries.

Gammaro credited the local's chief negotiator, Sharon Campbell, for securing the district-wide incentive plan, adding that the membership supports the new deal.

"We are always looking for ways to use student-based achievement and keep it at the forefront of what we do," Gammaro said. "Whenever teachers focus on student data to drive instruction, students benefit."