Former foes forget differences to run a school

7th May 2010 at 01:00
At one New York establishment, the reformers and a teaching union have joined forces

In the United States, there is a war under way - and it's not to do with Afghanistan or health reform.

It is over the growing influence of charter schools, the state-funded independent schools that have inspired the Tories in England and are set to increase under the Obama administration.

The reformers are bitterly opposed by the unions, which question the idea of charter schools as a panacea and say they are being used by well-funded zealots as part of a direct assault on their members' interests.

Yet in this land of extreme and entrenched positions, a charter school operator and a major teaching union have achieved something that seemed impossible. They have come together to run a school.

The Green Dot New York Charter School opened in 2008 in the heart of the South Bronx, an area that has become a byword for urban poverty. The school, for 15 to 18-year-olds, has police officers stationed at the main entrance and a "drug-free school zone" sign outside.

Principal Ashish Kapadia says: "I have to spend part of my day worrying about my students getting from school to home and from home to school".

Despite its surroundings, the charter school has a calm, studious atmosphere, 95 per cent attendance and more than double the proportion of pupils passing state-wide tests than the district average.

It is a story that is typical of the best of the charter schools springing up in American cities.

But what sets this place apart is that Green Dot Schools, a non-profit charter school operator based in Los Angeles, is in an equal partnership with the United Federation of Teachers, a union representing most teachers in New York City.

Green Dot Schools chief executive Marco Petruzzi understands the view of many US educators who blame the unions for holding back urban school performance. "Some teaching unions have stood in the way of what's for good kids," he says. "They are focused on just adults and they really have created a system of excuses. But I emphasise some."

Even so, he believes that to succeed with large-scale school reform, the unions cannot be ignored. Green Dot Schools has taken this a stage further with its unique decision to join up with UFT in the actual management of the school.

It had the immediate practical benefit of helping the Californian company clear the many hurdles needed to open a school in an alien New York bureaucracy that the union was well used to dealing with.

Mr Petruzzi says UFT's involvement also enabled the school to attract teachers with as much as 10 years' experience in the classroom, who might otherwise have been put off by the anti-union image of charter schools.

These are typically staffed by teachers in their 20s, driven by idealism but lacking experience.

Green Dot in New York has been able to achieve a balance, with half the school's teachers aged over 30, and some in their 40s and 50s.

They work longer hours than their counterparts in conventional state schools in the city - an extra 40 minutes a day on average. "They are professionals, and they are here when their students are here - we make it as simple as that," explains Mr Kapadia.

But they also get paid more, with a salary structure 14 per cent above the city norm. And while many charter schools hire staff on a year-to-year basis, at Green Dot their contracts are open-ended, with something close to the tenure that operates in the city's state schools.

For Leo Casey, the UFT official who negotiated what he admits is a "contentious" deal among his 80,000 teachers, the clincher was both sides' commitment to giving teachers a real voice in the running of the school. Committees of teachers are an essential part of the management and give staff a say on everything from hiring teachers to academic achievement and the budget.

Because its members are genuinely involved, the UFT was prepared to be more flexible in other areas of the contract it negotiated.

Mr Kapadia says the new deal is making a real difference in the South Bronx. "It empowers our teachers and is giving our students the best chance of academic success possible," he says.

"There are so many things working against public education in this area: despite that, our students still show up, they still do work, they still learn. They want to be here - they like their teachers.

"The area still has a long way to go, but we feel like we can help make it a little bit better."

Original paper headline: Former adversaries forget differences to run a school


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