First Person

Voices: Turning things around in Adams 12

Teacher Mark Sass says it’s not too late to turn things around in Adams 12, where a rift between the teachers’ union and administration is reaching the boiling point.

School boards exist to bring accountability to those whom we entrust our children. As elected officials, school board members have a responsibility to see that the community has avenues to express their beliefs and values. In short, school boards exist to advocate for their communities. How school boards go about their mission certainly varies among communities. For me, the best school boards empower their superintendents and educators to do their jobs with as little direct action as possible. A great example of this is the Jefferson County Public Schools Board of Education.

Cindy Stevenson and Kerrie Dallman
Jefferson County Schools Superintendent Cindy Stevenson, left, and Kerrie Dallman, president of the Jefferson County Education Association, said the district-union collaboration helped win a $32.8 million federal grant. <em>EdNews </em>file photo

When the Jeffco school district faced a budget crunch in 2011 – as was the case with many Colorado school districts – the board, under the leadership of Chairman David Thomas, empowered Superintendent Cynthia Stevenson and union President Kerrie Dallman to take a unique and never-done-before approach to the difficult task of negotiating budget cuts. They decided to collaborate, along with other district stakeholders, around the common value of student achievement to make decisions on what to cut.

Two representatives from the union, the district, the school board and groups from the administrators and classified staff members, attended a two-day summit. Everything was on the table from athletic fees to transportation, from teacher salaries to administrator salaries. The negotiations were made more difficult by those from both the board and union, who saw this new approach as too drastic a shift from the past. For them, giving up control to a consensual form of negotiation was not in the best interests for their respective groups.

A total of $40 million was cut from the 2011 budget. The same process was used in 2012. Because of their work both Dallman and Stevenson have been named as “Leaders to Learn From” by Education Week. Today the challenge for the district is to maintain this same level of collaboration with different players at the table. This is especially true since Dallman was elected as the new Colorado Education Association president last spring.

The level of trust and respect that the summits generated led to a collaborative decision-making process that was a significant change from the past, which had seen the board and the union engage in outright hostility and charges of the usual canard of not doing what was right for kids.

Contrast the collaborative and shared values of the Jeffco summits to what is happening today in Adams 12 Five Star School District.

For 40 years the Adams 12 school board and the District 12 Teachers Association (DTEA) have had a relatively professional and honest labor-management relationship. Not so today.

In June of last year, the school board made a unilateral decision to cut teacher’s pay by 1.5 percent to make up for a state imposed increase in PERA payments. DTEA claimed that the board had violated the master agreement, which members pointed out specifically forbid such a unilateral decision. DTEA filed a class action grievance against the board. All of this took place during negotiations for the current master agreement, which expires in August of 2014.  The negotiations have hit an impasse.

Both parties agreed to hire a fact-finder whose finding, while not binding, was accepted by the association but rejected by the board. The fact-finder found that the district does have enough revenue to “fund, at least, some of the economic adjustments, while keeping faithful (to its board policies).”

In the meantime, the labor-management relationship has deteriorated to name-calling and public displays of anger and frustration. Morale among teachers is low, which couldn’t come at a worse time as the district looks to implement new standards and standards-based grading – all of which takes extraordinary efforts on behalf of all district personnel. Charges of union busting and harassment have been aired in public and at school board meetings. Things are coming to a head in Adams 12.

Most frustrating for me is what could have been. Using the Jeffco model we could have engaged in tough decision-making with a focus on shared values of increasing student achievement and respect for each other. It will be hard, but we can turn things around. Let’s do what we expect from our students; stop and reflect on what went wrong and look to news ways to get it right and try again.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.