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.”

Top 10

From forest preschools to a secret apology, here are Chalkbeat Colorado’s must-read stories of 2018

PHOTO: Ann Schimke/Chalkbeat
Megan Patterson works with children to make a dam in a creek during a recent "forest school" class.

We spend a lot of time at Chalkbeat chasing the news to keep our readers informed about controversial policy changes, fast-moving debates, and late-breaking decisions.

But we also relish the opportunity to dig deep into issues affecting students and families, shine light on innovative ideas, and hear from dedicated educators making a difference. With that in mind, we’ve gathered 10 of our best stories from 2018.

These stories don’t necessarily chronicle the biggest education issues of 2018, from teacher walkouts to unprecedented state interventions. But they are stories we think are important and insightful, and that we enjoyed reporting and writing. We hope you enjoy reading them.

No walls: Forest preschools let kids run free, but can they change to reach diverse families?

One day this past summer, about a dozen children frolicked by a Jefferson County creek — making pretend tea in small metal buckets, and building dams with sticks and mud.

They were students at Worldmind Nature Immersion School, where children spend all their time outside. So-called forest preschools like Worldmind are beloved by many families but face significant regulatory and logistical barriers in expanding their footprint nationwide. Here in Colorado, a pilot program could lead a new kind of child care license designed for them.

And being licensed could help the schools confront another problem: a lack of diversity among their students. Read more.

Colorado was never ranked 46th for teacher pay. Does this change the debate?

It was an oft-cited statistic: that Colorado, despite its booming economy, ranked 46th in the nation for teacher pay. The eye-popping number found its way onto social media posts and signs at massive teacher rallies last spring. News outlets latched on to it, too.

But it was wrong. Colorado was actually ranked 30th in the nation.

Our story breaks down how the mistake happened (hint: a new data system, an unrevised report) — and how groups with different agendas seized on the snafu to score points. Read more.

This is the letter of apology that Adams 14 leaders never sent

The Adams 14 district in Commerce City is arguably the most troubled and low-performing in Colorado. Just last month, state officials directed Adams 14 to hire an external manager to oversee the district’s operations for at least the next four years.

Back in September, Adams 14 officials considered taking a rare step: saying sorry to the community. But an apology letter was never signed nor sent out.

Chalkbeat obtained a copy of the letter, which makes mention of “various and conflicting priorities, coupled with constant turnover and organizational disarray.” Read more.

Rising test scores and dwindling trust: Denver’s Tom Boasberg leaves a complicated legacy

Colorado’s largest school district experienced a big change this year when longtime leader Tom Boasberg announced he would step down after nearly 10 years in Denver Public Schools.

Because of his school improvement strategies — some of which were controversial and heightened tensions with the community — the district that the new superintendent, Susana Cordova, will inherit in January is vastly different than it was a decade ago.

One tangible difference: Schools that once served as anchors of the community but struggled academically have been closed or replaced. That disappearance was on display on one of Boasberg’s last days, when he held his cell phone close to his mouth and enunciated each word so his GPS would understand his direction: “Montbello High School.” Read more.

Parents in one Aurora high school are visiting classrooms and giving teachers feedback

Like many schools in Colorado, Aurora’s Rangeview High School has a test score gap between white and black students. But the assistant principal there came up with a unique way to try to address it: by inviting black parents to visit classrooms and observe how students are — or are not — engaging with the teacher’s lesson, and then provide suggestions for improvement.

“We give true and honest feedback,” said one parent involved, “if they looked or appeared comfortable, how they interacted with the environment, the temperature of the room.”

Although the assistant principal considers the African American Parent Committee an experiment, she said it’s generating uncomfortable but necessary conversations. Read more.

How education reform became a wedge issue among Colorado Democrats this election year

For years, more moderate Democrats, often working in unison with like-minded Republicans, championed education reform efforts ranging from school choice to holding educators accountable for student performance.

But partly because of backlash against President Donald Trump and his education secretary, those strategies no longer fly with many Democrats — especially left-leaning Democrats who see them as undercutting public education and devaluing the work of teachers.

That sentiment was palpable in Colorado’s Democratic gubernatorial primary, and could shape the next legislative session, which starts in January. “Education is the issue that really stands to divide the left in a very substantial way,” one observer said. Read more.

How a Colorado school district turned things around at 10,000 feet above sea level

School improvement efforts look a little different high in the Rocky Mountains. While many of the strategies used by the 1,000-student Lake County school district are familiar to urban settings, they’ve been retrofitted to meet the needs of a district that’s 100 miles west of Denver.

For example, instead of firing teachers and principals who weren’t accelerating student learning fast enough, the district adopted a new curriculum and gave its teachers lots of training.

“The belief that the people are the problem is wrong,” the superintendent said. “Our teachers are professionals, and we believe in them. We’re proving that there is a framework or a pathway for rural schools to improve that’s about building capacity within your own community.” Read more.

7 things to know about how Colorado schools punish their youngest students

After state lawmakers rejected a bill to limit the use of suspensions in the earliest grades, Chalkbeat wanted to know more about the early childhood discipline landscape in Colorado. Data from the Colorado Department of Education revealed several trends.

Among them: Young black boys are suspended at disproportionate rates. Some rural school districts have the highest early childhood suspension rates in the state.

And despite nationwide debate about the impact of harsh discipline on young children and local efforts to bring the numbers down, suspensions in the early grades are actually going up. Read more.

In Denver’s gentrifying neighborhoods, some middle-class parents are avoiding the school down the block

Many neighborhoods in Denver are gentrifying, with middle-class families moving into what have historically been working-class communities. That type of demographic shift could easily lead to neighborhood schools that are more integrated by family income and race.

But that doesn’t always happen in Denver. Instead, data show that wealthier families – more often than low-income families – are using Denver Public Schools’ universal school choice process to send their kids to schools elsewhere in the city.

That’s a problem because research shows integrated schools boost test scores for students from low-income families without lowering the scores of those from wealthier ones. Denver officials want to see those benefits, but allowing parents to choose may be thwarting them. Read more.

Why this Colorado principal hand delivers birthday cards to more than 2,000 students and staff

Northglenn High School Principal Sharee Blunt is Colorado’s 2018 School Principal of the year — but perhaps even more impressive is the enormous number of birthday cards she hand delivers each year. If you’re one of those people who can barely remember your spouse’s birthday, you’ll be floored by Blunt’s annual feat.

In our interview with Blunt, part of Chalkbeat’s “How I Lead” Q&A series with distinguished school leaders, she talks about what she realized after a mother’s emotional reaction, and why she gave a teacher a pass during a lesson that went awry. Read more.

union power

Charter teachers won big in nation’s first strike. What now?

PHOTO: Yana Kunichoff / Chalkbeat
Teachers from Acero charter schools in Chicago protest stalled negotiations Oct. 24, 2018, as they readied to vote on authorizing a strike.

Some 500 unionized teachers joined in the nation’s first charter strike last week, and succeeded in negotiating wage increases, smaller class sizes and a shorter school day. Their gains could foreshadow next year’s citywide contract negotiations — between the Chicago Teachers Union, with its contract expiring in June, and Chicago Public Schools.

“The issue of class size is going to be huge,” said Chris Geovanis, the union’s director of communications. “It is a critically important issue in every school.”

Unlike their counterparts in charters, though, teachers who work at district-run schools can’t technically go on strike to push through a cap on the number of students per class. That’s because the Illinois Education Labor Relations Act defines what issues non-charter public school teachers can bargain over, and what issues can lead to a strike.

An impasse on issues of compensation or those related to working conditions, such as length of the school day or teacher evaluations, could precipitate a strike. But disagreements over class sizes or school closures, among other issues, cannot be the basis for a strike.

The number of students per class has long been a point of contention among both district and charter school teachers.

Educators at Acero had hopes of pushing the network to limit class sizes to 24-28 students, depending on the grade. However, as Acero teachers capped their fourth day on the picket line, they reached an agreement with the charter operator on a cap of 30 students — down from the current cap of 32 students.

Andy Crooks, a special education apprentice, also known as a teacher’s aide, at Acero’s Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz school and a member of the teachers bargaining team, said that even having two fewer students in a classroom would make a huge difference.

“You really do get a lot more time with your students,” Crooks said. “And if you are thinking about kindergarten in particular, two less 5-year-olds really can help set the tone of the classroom.”

In district-run schools, classes are capped at 28 students in kindergarten through third grade, and at 31 students in fourth through sixth grade. But a survey by the advocacy group Parents 4 Teachers, which supports educators taking on inequality, found that during the 2017-2018 school year, 21 percent of K-8 classrooms had more students than district guidelines allowed. In 18 elementary school classrooms, there were 40 or more students.

The issue came up at last week’s Board of Education meeting, at which Ivette Hernandez, a parent of a first-grader at Virgil Grissom Elementary School in the city’s Hegewisch neighborhood, said her son’s classes have had more than 30 students in them. When the children are so young and active — and when they come into classrooms at so many different skill levels — “the teachers can’t handle 30 kids in one class,” she told the board.

Alderman Sue Garza, a former counselor, accompanied Hernandez. She also spoke before the board about classroom overcrowding — worrying aloud that, in some grades at one school in particular, the number of students exceeded the building’s fire codes. (Board chair Frank Clark said a district team would visit the school to ensure compliance fire safety policies.)

While the Chicago Teachers Union aren’t technically allowed to strike over class sizes, the union does have a history of pushing the envelope when it comes to bargaining.

Back in 2012, when the Chicago Teachers Union last went on strike, they ended up being able to secure the first limit on class sizes in 20 years because the district permitted the union to bargain over class size.

They also led a bargaining campaign that included discussion over racial disparities in Chicago education and school closures, arguing that these trends impacted the working conditions of teachers.

“Even if you can’t force an employer to bargain over an issue, you can push them to bargain over the impact of an issue,” Bob Bruno, a labor professor at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, explained.

The Chicago Teachers Union also emerged from its 2012 negotiations with guarantees of additional “wraparound services,” such as access to onsite social workers and school counselors.