In a series of battles with the Bloomberg administration this spring, Teachers found that their success depended largely upon improving a relationship that had been riddled with suspicion for 40 years.
It was the parents, United Federation of Teachers officials say, who added the energy and the moral outrage needed to back the city off of some of its most controversial reforms. Many low and middle-income parents found themselves in the same boat as Teachers – feeling left out of the city’s decision-making process. That sentiment pushed the groups towards one another into a coalition not seen in a generation that burst into the open this spring. The alliance led to commitments from the Department of Education, not previously known for bending to popular will, to put science labs in every middle school, provide extra money for bilingual education and leave Teacher tenure alone.
‘Tired of Fighting UFT’
"We were tired of being put in the position of fighting against one another," said Pat Boone, president of the community group ACORN. "When the UFT wanted to work with us, I said ‘Hallelujah, it’s about time.’ The more we stuck together, the more DOE listened."
The groups acknowledge that the Bloomberg administration is moving ahead with a raft of school reorganization measures, many of which they oppose. But the rebellion this spring by parents and Teachers forced the administration to give way on some of the measures the groups found most onerous, such as funding shifts that the UFT believed would have given schools an incentive to get rid of senior Teachers. The Put the Public Back in Public Education group, which includes the parent-led Coalition for Educational Justice, the Working Families Party and the UFT, was the most media-conscious of the collaborations. But around the city, parents and Teachers in struggling schools have been inching towards one another, piecing together efforts to improve schools in ways they hope will benefit both children and Teachers.
‘Parents Took the Lead’
One parent group that has been working with the UFT, the Brooklyn Education Collaborative, celebrated a stunning victory earlier this month, securing $444 million to fund a science lab in every middle school. The idea for the campaign came from discussions within BEC, which includes parent groups from East New York, Teachers and UFT officials.
"The parents started raising hell," said Amina Rachman, the UFT special assistant to the president who oversees parent outreach for the union. "Parents picked this issue, and they took the leadership role."
Zakiyah Ansari, who has eight children who are in or have been in the public schools, is a leader in BEC. "You go into some of these schools, and it’s like night and day," she contended. She said getting involved allowed her to see the breadth of the problem and that Teachers needed support and up-to-date equipment to be able to do their jobs adequately.
A Changing Membership
The union says the parents deserve a lot of the credit for the successful campaign. "If it wasn’t for this collaboration, we never would have gotten this," said UFT Middle Schools Vice President Richard Farkas. "The union is strong, but we needed the parents."
The parents said that the history of the 1968 Teachers’ strike in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, when a mostly white teaching force bitterly clashed with majority black parents and local activists over community control, still lingers in Brooklyn.
Some parents point out that one difference between 1968 and the present is the racial make-up of the union. Whereas during the Ocean Hill-Brownsville struggle about 8 percent of Teachers were black, today 20 percent of UFT members are black, with 14 percent Latino, 20 percent Asian and 60 percent white.
But they also say that their recent experience working with the UFT has reduced tensions. "There are a lot of things we have in common," said Lenore Brown, a parent leader with Cypress Hills Advocates for Education, which is part of BEC. "Parents don’t want overcrowded schools, and Teachers don’t want big classes. We use consensus for decisions and that process keeps the group tight."
United Against Edison
But union leaders are quick to point out that the work to bring parents and Teachers together did not begin this year. "I think people began to notice because of the [Put the Public Back in Public Education] coalition," said UFT President Randi Weingarten. "I think people not normally looking at the school system didn’t know how deeply rooted connections had become between parents and Teachers."
BEC came into existence in the fall of 2004, and the Coalition for Educational Justice, which has led the way on middle school reform, was formed in the spring of 2006.
But most long-time community activists agree that the first concrete steps towards collaboration occurred in 2001 when the UFT joined forces with ACORN to keep the private school management company Edison from taking over a handful of schools.
That same year, another group of parents came together out of frustration with the quality of schools and Teacher turnover in District 9 in The Bronx, where graduation rates are among the lowest in the city. "No one wanted to stay in the neighborhood and teach what they thought of as uncontrollables," said Carol Boyd, who went to District 9 schools and sent her children there as well.
Started Mentor Program
Eventually organizing themselves as the City Collaborative to Improve Bronx Schools, or CCB, the group approached the UFT about ways to keep Teachers from leaving the schools. The contact was the first one made in a long time.
"I asked them if they had talked to the [UFT] district rep," said Ms. Rachman, "and they didn’t even know who he was. The parents had literally never heard of him."
After a series of meetings with UFT officials, the parents came back with a proposal. It was the start of the highly successful Lead Teacher program, which pays Master Teachers extra to mentor newer ones.
As part of the process, parents also reached out to Teachers and volunteered to give them tours of the neighborhoods where their schools were based.
"This is where we live," said Ocynthia Williams, who is a leader in CCB and has six children, two of whom are still in the public school system. "Some of them had no idea. We said, ‘We want you to feel safe here. You might be coming from Westchester, but look at what we have here – this is where you can take your dry cleaning or take your kids.”’
Ms. Boyd was quick to add that it showed Teachers other realities of the neighborhood’s resources. "Like you can’t make kids go to the library for research because it’s been closed for two years for renovations," she said.
In 2002, the UFT-parent team began lobbying the city and shopping at foundations to raise money for the program. After some amount of resistance, the group finally got permission from DOE in June 2004 and the program went into effect that September, with the city footing half the bill. Two years later, the program had proven itself and it went citywide, albeit in an altered form.
Bronx parents said the collaboration with Teachers translated directly into the classroom and improved relations between Teachers and parents. "With the union, we were on opposite sides of the table for almost 40 years," said Ms. Williams. "Now the doors are open to look at where we have the same concerns."
Charter School Symbols
Union officials said that as they reached out to parents, they were aware of the damage wrought by Ocean Hill-Brownsville.
"We were very conscious of it," said Ms. Weingarten. "The way you heal those wounds is actually walk the walk and don’t just talk about it." She said that initiatives such as the UFT scholarship fund, the UFT-staffed homework helpline Dial-A-Teacher, and the annual 3,000-person UFT-parent conference, now in its 10th year, were steps taken along the road.
"We opened two charter schools in East New York as a way of symbolically and in real time and a real way showing that the circle that started in Ocean Hill-Brownsville has changed almost completely and turned," she explained.
Each UFT borough office now has a full-time parent outreach staff person, and each group defines its agenda independently. In Brooklyn, science labs and middle schools were the focus. In Manhattan they formed committees on gang violence and special education. In Queens, where parent groups are more established and wield more power, the UFT focused on outreach to different ethnic groups not connected to the decision-making process. It had 300 parents show up to a conference to discuss school issues held entirely in Chinese and brought in Chinese-speaking Teachers to help facilitate. The union has also held conferences in Korean and Spanish.
"It’s old-fashioned organizing," said Ms. Rachman. "We put the issues up on the board, narrow them down, set up meetings and plan strategy."
Two years ago, the UFT gave support to a campaign spearheaded by Make The Road By Walking, a membership-based community group in Bushwick, to force the city to provide translation services for communication from schools and DOE that are meant for parents – including notes from the school nurse, homework help or the latest test scores.
"We recognized we were in an ally position," said Andrew Friedman, co-director of Make the Road. "It doesn’t mean parents and Teachers are in an ally position always and on every point, but it is major progress in parent organizing not to jump to the point immediately that we’re not allies."
Mr. Friedman said that often in community organizing, people begin by being angry at individuals before they go after the structural problems. "When people start being angry at what’s happening in schools, they may begin with the 26-year-old Teacher from Long Island," he said. "In this case, the UFT was consistent and supportive and didn’t try to take it over. Folks made a leap of faith and then didn’t get discouraged by the experience."
Kept the Faith
Union officials acknowledge the importance of the long-term process and building trust through joint projects. Several players in the Put The Public Back in Public Education coalition say the UFT’s stance during the final negotiations for a deal between themselves and the city this spring made an impression on them, and also made clear the importance of the union’s influence. In the final hours of working out the details over what the city would give, participants say city officials gave in on a number of issues, but were refusing to commit to the amount of funding for bilingual education demanded by several immigrant groups. Sources say that Ms. Weingarten told a coalition conference call that the UFT was not going to the press conference without the immigrant coalition. A few hours later, the city gave in and most of the groups agreed to the deal.
"You cannot in New York City just create something from nowhere," she said. "We had to have had the relationships beforehand; otherwise none of this would have been possible."