state of the union

Behind UFT's robust operations, a small army of chapter leaders

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The UFT is a politically powerful organization with millions of dollars at its disposal and sweeping campaigns that aim to make change at the highest levels of education policy. But at the heart of all of the spending and lobbying is the union’s contract with the city.

Clocking in at 165 pages just for classroom teachers, the contract spells out everything teachers must do, and everything they should not. Some of its clauses, such as those specifying what teachers cannot be compelled to do, have drawn fierce criticism for impeding administrator discretion so much that student performance suffers. But the contract is also the only guarantee that teachers are compensated for their time and receive due process rights when they are accused of misconduct.

For all of the conflict the contract elicits, it has meaning on the ground only if someone enforces its terms. That job falls to the small army of “chapter leaders” who represent the union at each school, and who are many teachers’ only contact with their union.

UFT Secretary Michael Mendel calls chapter leaders — who are elected by their colleagues every three years — “the backbone of the union.” But who are the chapter leaders? What do they actually do? What challenges do they face? The answers to those questions, which have long been obscured behind individual schoolhouse doors, are essential to understanding how the UFT serves its members and calls upon them to take action.

Educating educators

The first task of any chapter leader is to help his or her colleagues understand their rights and responsibilities. Teachers and many other city educators automatically begin paying union dues when they are added to the Department of Education’s payroll, but learning what’s in the contract takes longer.

“People don’t understand the contract. Few people, I think, actually read” it, said Arthur Goldstein, chapter leader at Francis Lewis High School in Queens. Goldstein said he was unfamiliar with the contract, too, when he won the position four years ago.

Chapter leaders said what they know about the contract comes from union trainings, monthly meetings with their district representatives, and the many rounds of research they do to respond to individual members’ questions.

“All the benefits we have can be confusing,” said Alice O’Neil, who worked as a chapter leader for seven years at Food and Finance High School in Manhattan and is now in her second year as the union district representative for Manhattan high schools.

Enforcing the contract

Getting teachers to know their rights is only half of the battle chapter leaders face. They must also ensure that the contract’s terms are respected, which can be challenging in a climate where even the most collegial administrators are under pressure to accomplish more with less resources.

In schools where teachers and administrators generally work well together, chapter leaders say they do not always have to be adversarial to get school leaders to respect the contract. Tara Brancato, chapter leader at Knowledge and Power Preparatory Academy in the Bronx, said the work of a savvy chapter leader can “put out a lot of problems before they become big problems.”

When the school year opened with uncertainty about how teachers would be evaluated, “people could have gotten very upset very quickly,” she said. “Instead, they brought it to me, I brought it to the principal, and we had a big school meeting about it.”

But in situations where getting the contract enforced requires a fight, the chapter leader helps teachers use the union’s main tool for enforcement, the grievance. Teachers file grievances when they think their rights have been violated, and chapter leaders can file grievances on behalf of their teachers, for example when class sizes exceed their contractual limits.

Goldstein said the chapter leader stands up against administrative abuses where individual teachers might not have the will or stamina.

“You might be a new teacher, and you might not want to file a grievance because your class size is too big. This way you don’t have to get involved, you don’t have an administrator saying, ‘Gee, why can’t you take 37 students, that’s not so bad,’” Goldstein said. “I just grieve for everyone.”

After a grievance has been filed, chapter leaders facilitate meetings between teachers and their administrators, sometimes brokering compromises early on. Conflicts that aren’t resolved at the school level enter into an onerous hearing process that can last months or years, and chapter leaders are responsible for bringing complaints to union leaders.

“After step one, the grievance is completely in hands of UFT,” said Jamaica High School chapter leader James Eterno.

The chapter leader must support union members who have grievances even if he or she doesn’t think their complaints have merit, a position that several leaders said can be difficult to navigate. But Dana Lawit, the chapter leader at the Kurt Hahn Expeditionary Learning School in Brooklyn, said she resolves the tension by thinking of her role as “protecting the process.”

A political position

In addition to defending individual teachers at the school level, chapter leaders are also expected to support broader efforts to safeguard the profession.

“We sometimes ask them for information, we sometimes ask them to come to meetings, we sometimes ask them to go to rallies,” said Mendel. “We sometimes ask them to do political work.”

In weekly emails, union officials poll chapter leaders about budget cuts and conditions at their schools, such as class size, to fuel high-level appeals against behaviors that the union’s leadership has identified as abusive.

After the union successfully made the case to Department of Education officials in 2011 that some principals were improperly assessing teachers, the UFT newspaper credited chapter leaders with the win. “None of these important matters could have been addressed so well without the attentiveness and commitment of chapter leaders,” an editorial read. “The UFT counts on chapter leaders to be its eyes and ears on the front lines.”

And when the union holds rallies or lobbies in Albany, chapter leaders are expected to let their members know, and are asked, but not required, to participate themselves. (Chapter leaders who are not necessarily on board with all elements of the union’s agenda said they do not feel pressure to participate in campaigns they don’t support. “There are chapter leaders involved in that. I choose not to take on that role,” said Patrick Sprinkle, the chapter leader at Bronx Collegiate who is also a member of Educators 4 Excellence, an advocacy group that sometimes opposes the union on education policy issues. “Our teachers can make their own decisions about whether to go to rallies.”)

The union’s political expertise, which it wields heavily in local and state elections, can also be useful to chapter leaders on the ground. When Lawit worked with other chapter leaders on her shared campus to protest the city’s plans to add an additional school to the building, the union helped them write media releases and connect with parents and local advocacy organizations.

The position can be politically fraught inside schools, as well. Several chapter leaders said they have had to ease tension between senior and new teachers, particularly when the prospect of teacher layoffs periodically emerges and teachers with the least experience face losing their positions.

In particular, teachers minted through non-traditional pathways such as through Teach for America, who might not be considering teaching as a long-term career, sometimes have a harder time understanding the seniority rights enshrined in the union contract, said Lawit, who herself entered the classroom through the NYC Teaching Fellows alternative certification program.

“There’s a complicated relationship that teachers who have come in through alternative certification programs have with unions, because they’re conditioned to dislike it — or never really understood how it was a part of their professional life,” she said. New teachers, she added, might get training on how to plan a lesson, but they don’t always “know about the political context [they’re] working in that’s actually really complicated.”

The tough stuff

All of the educating, enforcing, and engaging is supposed to get done in just a few hours each week. At small schools, chapter leaders get about 45 minutes a day off from school responsibilities, such as monitoring the cafeteria or supervising bus pickup and dismissal. At larger schools, they teach one fewer class than their colleagues, giving them a little more time to field questions, juggle grievances, and get political. (The union picks up the tab for the time chapter leaders are not teaching.)

But that’s rarely enough time to get the job done, chapter leaders said. “There’s not really a solid 45 minutes in the day that I can met with all the teachers at the same time, except at the end of the day, but that would require me asking teachers to stay later,” said Elana Eisen-Markowitz, the chapter leader at Bronx Academy of Letters. And asking teachers to stay outside of their contractual hours is, of course, exactly the request that Eisen-Markowitz is supposed to help them avoid.

The task is toughest for chapter leaders who consistently do not see eye to eye with administrators at their school.

“If you’re in a situation where the principal is very adversarial and just looking to get at teachers, the job of chapter leader can be extremely difficult and extremely taxing,” Eterno said.

In some cases, chapter leaders who speak out against problematic administrative practices end up as targets themselves. Retaliation might take the form of being assigned the toughest classes or not being offered overtime work, Eterno said.

“You start speaking up on a school leadership team, and the next thing you know you’re being observed 10 times and you’re getting letters in your file,” said union President Michael Mulgrew. “’Oh, I was great when I worked with you … but now all of a sudden I’m this horrible person because I told you [that] you were wrong about something you wanted to do?'”

Eterno said his relationship with his principal is positive now, but it hasn’t always been that way during his 17 years as a chapter leader. “If I didn’t have tenure, I could not have opened my mouth and spoken as I have over the years, because I would be gone,” he said.

By last year, Mulgrew said, the problem of retaliation against chapter leaders had grown acute, in part driven by a Department of Education policy under which teachers accused of misconduct were removed from their schools while disciplinary proceedings were underway.

“We saw a targeting of chapter leaders who were outspoken,” he said. “Chapter leaders all of a sudden were being brought up on — a lot of them — frivolous charges because they were outspoken or challenging principals.”

In response, the union passed a resolution that “reaffirms its historical commitment to use all legal means at its disposal … to defend its chapter leaders and delegates from illegal attacks by the DOE.”

The purpose of the resolution, Mulgrew said, was to “make it very clear to everyone: Chapter leader does not mean that you’re protected from doing bad things, but it [also] doesn’t mean because you’re doing your job, you should be attacked for it. … It’s basic unionism.”

Department of Education officials said chapter leaders do not face inappropriate discipline in response to their advocacy. A labor board that reviews retaliation complaints frequently rules in the department’s favor, said a spokeswoman, Connie Pankratz.

“Teachers accused of misconduct or charged with incompetence are treated the same regardless of whether or not they are chapter leaders,” she said.

Either way, it is clear that few teachers relish the prospect of putting themselves on the front lines of defending the union’s contract with the city. Many chapter leader elections are uncontested.

“I ran unopposed,” said Tara Pedersen, chapter leader at the Academy for Young Writers in Brooklyn. “At least in my school there really isn’t a huge amount of desire to have this role.”

“You have to be completely crazy and out of your mind to become a chapter leader,” Goldstein said. “It’s a lot of work and there’s not a lot of reward.”

Behind the brawl

Three things to know about the Tennessee school behind this week’s graduation brawl

PHOTO: Arlington Community Schools
Arlington High School is a 2,000-plus-student school in suburban Shelby County in southwest Tennessee.

Arlington High School is considered the crown jewel of a 3-year-old district in suburban Shelby County, even as its school community deals with the unwelcome attention of several viral videos showing a fight that broke out among adults attending its graduation ceremony.

The brawl, which reportedly began with a dispute over saved seats, detracted from Tuesday’s pomp and circumstance and the more than $30 million in scholarships earned by the school’s Class of 2017. No students were involved.

“It was unfortunate that a couple of adults in the audience exhibited the behavior they did prior to the ceremony beginning and thus has caused a distraction from the celebration of our students’ accomplishments,” Arlington Community Schools Superintendent Tammy Mason said in a statement.

Here are three things to know about the 13-year-old school in northwest Shelby County.

With more than 2,000 students, Arlington is one of the largest high schools in Shelby County and is part of a relatively new district.

It’s the pride of a suburban municipality that is one of six that seceded from Shelby County Schools in 2014 following the merger of the city and county districts the year before. (School district secessions are a national trend, usually of predominantly white communities leaving predominantly black urban school systems.) More than 70 percent of Arlington’s students are white, and 6 percent are considered economically disadvantaged — in stark contrast to the Memphis district where less than 8 percent are white, and almost 60 percent are considered economically disadvantaged.

The school’s graduation rate is high … and climbing.

Last year, after adding interventions for struggling students, the school’s graduation rate jumped a full point to more than 96 percent. Its students taking the ACT college entrance exam scored an average composite of 22.5 out of a possible 36, higher than the state average of 19.9. But only a fifth scored proficient or advanced in math and a third in English language arts during 2015-16, the last school year for which scores are available and a transition year for Tennessee under a new test.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits with students at Arlington High School during a 2016 tour.

The school was in the news last August when Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visited its campus.

The commissioner spoke with students there to kick off her statewide listening tour that’s focused on ways to get students ready for college and career. McQueen highlighted the school’s extracurricular activities and students’  opportunities to intern for or shadow local professionals. She also complimented Arlington for having an engaged education community. 

poster campaign

How one Memphis student is elevating the conversation about school discipline

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Posters created by junior Janiya Douglas have amplified student voices about the culture of White Station High School in Memphis.

Now in her third year of attending a premier public high school in Memphis, Janiya Douglas says she’s observed discipline being handed out unevenly to her classmates, depending on whether they are on the college preparatory track.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
From left: Janiya Douglas and Michal Mckay are student leaders in Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

“We’re heavily divided in an academic hierarchy,” said Janiya, a junior in the optional program for high-achieving students at White Station High School. “It’s obvious students are treated differently if they are in traditional classes.”

Janiya also has observed racial disparities in how students are disciplined, and the state’s data backs that up. White Station students who are black or Hispanic are suspended at significantly higher rates than students who are white.

Frustrated by what she’s seen, Janiya took her concerns last Friday to the hallways of White Station and hung 14 posters to declare that “our school doesn’t treat everybody equally.”

By Monday morning, the posters were gone — removed by school administrators because Janiya did not get prior approval — but not before other students shared images of some of the messages on social media.

Now, Janiya is seeing some fruits of her activism, spawned by her participation in Bridge Builders CHANGE, a student leadership program offered by a local nonprofit organization.

In the last week, she’s met with Principal David Mansfield, a school counselor and a district discipline specialist to discuss her concerns. She’s encouraged that someone is listening, and hopes wider conversations will follow.

The discussions also are bringing attention to an online petition by the education justice arm of Bridge Builders calling for suspension alternatives across schools in Memphis.

White Station often is cited as one of the jewels of Shelby County Schools, a district wrought with academic challenges. The East Memphis school is partially optional, meaning some students test into the college prep program from across the county.

But Janiya and some of her classmates say they also see an academically and racially segregated school where students zoned to the traditional program are looked down upon by teachers. Those students often get harsher punishments, they say, than their optional program counterparts for the same actions.

“Our school doesn’t treat everybody equally. A lot of groups aren’t treated equally in our school system,” junior Tyra Akoto said in a quote featured on one poster.

“If we get wrong with a teacher, they’ll probably write us up. But if a white student was to do it, they’ll just play it off or something like that,” said Kelsey Brown, another junior, also quoted in the poster campaign.

A district spokeswoman did not respond to questions about disciplinary issues raised by the posters, but offered a statement about their removal from the school’s walls.

White Station is known for “enabling student voice and allowing students to express their opinions in various ways,” the statement reads. “However, there are protocols in place that must be followed before placing signs, posters, or other messages on school property. Schools administrators will always work with students to ensure they feel their voices are heard.”

PHOTO: @edj.youth/Instagram
Members of the education justice arm of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program

To create the posters, Janiya interviewed about two dozen students and had been learning about about school discipline disparities as part of the Bridge Builders CHANGE program.

State discipline data does not differentiate academic subgroups in optional schools. But white students in Shelby County Schools are more likely to be in an optional school program and less likely to be suspended. And statewide in 2014-15, black students were more than five times as likely as white students to be suspended.

White Station reflects those same disparities. About 28 percent of black boys and 19 percent of black girls were suspended that same year — significantly higher than the school’s overall suspension rate of 14 percent. About 17 percent of Hispanic boys and 7 percent of Hispanic girls were suspended. By comparison, 9 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls were suspended.

Shelby County Schools has been working to overhaul its disciplinary practices to move from punitive practices to a “restorative justice” approach — a transition that is not as widespread as officials would like, according to Gina True, one of four specialists implementing a behavior system called Positive Behavior Interventions and Supports, or PBIS.

“The whole goal is to not get them suspended, because we want to educate them,” said True, who met this week with Janiya and several other students from Bridge Builders. “When students are cared for emotionally, they perform better academically. As counselors, that’s what we’ve been saying for years.”

Janiya acknowledges that she didn’t follow her school’s policy last week when hanging posters without permission at White Station. But she thinks her action has been a catalyst for hard conversations that need to happen. And she hopes the discussions will include more student input from her school — and across the district.

“Those most affected by the issues should always be a part of the solution,” she said.

Correction: April 10, 2017: A previous version of this story said Janiya put up 50 posters at her school. She designed 50 but actually posted only 14.