In 2009, more than 9,000 educators attending NEA’s representative assembly responded to President Obama’s policy on turning around low-performing schools by voting to direct NEA’s resources toward transforming struggling schools. As a result, the Priority Schools Campaign was born.
“NEA seized on the public policy window afforded by the [Obama] Administration’s School Improvement Grant program to leverage our resources as a complement,” said Sheila Simmons, the director of the NEA Priority Schools Campaign.
Today, the NEA is working directly with 35 schools implementing School Improvement Grants (SIG) in 25 districts across the country, providing intensive technical assistance to schools and districts as well as providing other resources to support the success of school turnarounds. Each of NEA’s priority schools has a two-year plan for improvement that was co-created with local and state union affiliates, the district, and the NEA. The union also provides strategic and on-the-ground support at no cost on matters such as educator practice and professional development, family and community engagement, communications support, and collective bargaining.
“It may be a shock to those stuck on so-called conventional wisdom, but unions aren’t obstructionists; in fact, we are helping to lead the way!” said Simmons. “Partnerships between schools, districts, and educators may be surprising, but make no mistake – the Priority Schools Campaign is changing the game and moving the reform conversation.”
The Making of the Priority Schools Campaign
With the support of the NEA Foundation, NEA created a school-based, operationalized framework for the Priority Schools Campaign that focuses the organization’s support in three areas:
- Support and advocacy for priority schools as they implement SIG, including professional development, school visits, and local advocacy on behalf of the schools.
- Organizational capacity building to improve leadership skills of teachers and school leaders, and to increase collaboration among the superintendent, the district, and the leadership of the local union.
- Engagement and outreach to better involve the community and to successfully communicate the successes of each school as it undergoes turnaround.
While NEA started with 15 target states and 300 schools, it narrowed its focus to a smaller group of schools and states to distill best practices. In each of the 31 Priority Schools, the NEA has a team member working directly with the local union president and staff. Working with all local stakeholders, the team creates a two-year plan for the school built around the three components of NEA’s framework for support.
“We provide support on contract negotiations, such as standard MOU language for each of the SIG models and how to do the work,” said Simmons. We provide three kinds of services: on-site, where the national, state, and local team members come in to advise the work; paper support, where we look at the contracts, the MOUs; and online support, including communications support with web sites and blogs. The plan addresses both policy and practice.”
“Schools are getting professional development, but unfortunately it’s not all job embedded and it’s not what the educators need. One of the biggest areas of need is supporting diverse populations. Because of the nature of the student population, educators need professional development on how you contextualize teaching and learning and to work with English learners, low-income students, minorities,” said Simmons.
NEA aims to meet this need through professional development sessions that focus on closing the achievement gap, enhancing the skills of educators to work with diverse learners, conducting community outreach, and dealing with bullying and sexual harassment.
“These issues really impact what the interactions are like between teachers and students,” said Simmons. “It’s difficult to turn around a school without knowing who is in the school, or partnering with the community.”
NEA is also starting to work with the Regional Comprehensive Centers and Regional Education Labs, connecting schools to these resources and building their partnerships with these organizations. Through these relationships, NEA is looking to broaden its research base on school turnarounds, as well as better coordinate and improve the technical assistance being offered to schools.
Local Success Stories
For North High School in Des Moines, Iowa, the Priority Schools Campaign has been a critical partner in its school turnaround process.
“The NEA has championed our philosophy and strategic interventions and has provided the extra support and resources to help us see the turnaround through to the end,” said Matthew Smith, principal of the school.
North High School is specifically using technology to support teaching and learning, as well as the development of 21st century skills.
“The NEA has teamed with the staff to provide support for student laptop rollout, staff professional development, organization of town hall meetings, etc.... their involvement with this initiative has been incredibly helpful and positive,” said Smith.
North High School has seen this progress in their state assessment of 11th grade students. In 2010-11, the reading and science scores increased 19 percentage points from 2009-10, moving North High from the bottom to the second highest scoring school in the district. In math, the school improved 11 percentage points.
The Early College High School and Roberts High School in Salem, Ore. have also received intensive support from the NEA through the Priority Schools Campaign. As alternative schools, both Roberts and Early College High provide rigorous and comprehensive academic programs to underserved students including teen mothers and students who have been expelled from traditional schools. Over the past year of SIG implementation, the local union supported school leadership on the creation of a new teacher evaluation and observation system for their SIG schools; NEA also has provided onsite assistance through two school visits throughout the year.
Lorelei Gilmore serves as the principal of secondary alternative programs at both high schools, and she says that the NEA with the administration in partnership as they worked to meet the goals of SIG.
“They are always available to staff who want to share concerns or have questions,” said Gilmore. “I love the positive feedback that leads to things like promotional articles because too often small alternative schools are overlooked and underrated.”
One of the biggest successes of the year was led by the testing coordinator at the schools, who made sure that nearly 100 percent of their students – a highly mobile and fluid population – took the Oregon Assessment of Knowledge and Skills (OAKS) exam. In addition, the math department’s focus on specific student interventions paid off this year when 93 percent of their students passed the OAKS exam in math.
In Evansville, Ind., NEA’s support at both the national and local levels helped bring to the district the Equity Project, a program run out of Indiana University dedicated to providing high quality data to educational decision-makers in order to better understand and address issues regarding educational equity. McGary Middle School is one of three “Equity Schools” in the district and a NEA priority school.
Principal Mary Schweitzer says Equity Schools are a step into new territory, as it brought together all stakeholders – including the union and district leaders – to sit down and determine what they needed to do to help turnaround schools be successful.
“Our partnership allowed the Equity School concept to move to reality, to step outside the normal teacher contracts and bring together 160 teachers for deep professional development in three schools,” said Schweitzer. “The Equity Schools Project allowed the teachers to design the length of the school day, what happens in it, and the length of the calendar – all keeping the success of students and their needs in mind.”
McGary has seen significant improvement over the past year in school culture and climate. Schweitzer estimates that the school has seen at least a 50 percent reduction in office referrals, and more parents are becoming involved in the school.
The whole process, says Schweitzer, “showed us we have a lot of people on our side. We are very committed and realize that this is about students. This is personal and we want them all to achieve.”
Simmons agrees, and says she is proud of all of the progress that the priority schools are making through their collaboration with NEA and local stakeholders.
She said, “We believe the early success of this collaborative effort proves that union-led and union-championed transformation is real and replicable.”