Dynamic Duo

By Karen Diegmueller — August 01, 1992 29 min read

It’s a late winter day in Milwaukee, and a brilliant sun has elevated the temperature to a balmy 50 degrees--a rarity for these climes. All along Lake Drive, the road that hugs the Lake Michigan shoreline, people are bicycling, tossing Frisbees, walking, and celebrating the golden weather. But holed up inside a two-story red brick building several miles from the lake, a dozen men and women resist the promise of spring and concentrate on the task at hand. They are volunteers, dressed in the casual uniform of the day-- jeans, flannel shirts, sweatshirts, and sneakers. Some wear buttons touting a particular cause. A 3-month-old boy naps cozily atop a formica conference table while his mother works. In these cramped quarters, haphazardly decorated with mismatched furniture, posters, and plants suspended in macrame hangers, they pass the afternoon proofreading copy, writing, and typing corrections into a computer. Were it two decades ago, this could easily be a conclave of anti-war activists. Despite the wrinkles and graying hair, these men and women are clearly agitators. But unlike their counterparts from the 1960s, the people gathered here are not outsiders. They agitate within the system. Their cause: to reform the Milwaukee public schools. They are the editors and publishers of a first-of-its-kind news- paper, a periodical produced by an independent group of educators. Collectively, they spend hundreds of hours each month getting out their message of reform to colleagues and the community at large.

Two among them--Bob Peterson and Rita Tenorio--exemplify the passion and energy that has driven Rethinking Schools since the quarterly tabloid was started six years ago.

Peterson and Tenorio have been at the forefront of school reform in Milwaukee for nearly a decade. They co-founded Rethinking Schools in 1986 and a year later helped establish a nationwide organization for educators and parents seeking to change public education. Then in 1988, the two helped create the experimental Fratney Street School, where they are putting the principles and ideas they preach into practice. And last year, they headed a reform slate that gained control of the local teachers’ union.

Says Anita Simansky, a volunteer proofreader for Rethinking Schools and a guidance counselor in the nearby Kenosha public school system: “These are people who, when they were very young, decided on a lifetime conviction of putting a lot of time and energy into trying to change the world.’'

People who have known Peterson for a long time say it’s only natural that he grew up to be some sort of reformer. That he did so as a school teacher is another matter entirely.

Peterson was raised in Madison, Wis., in the late 1960s and early 1970s when it was the heartland’s hotbed of student activism. At Madison West High School, he worked for student rights and against the Vietnam War. Peterson thought of high school itself as an infringement of his rights, and he rebelled by participating in sit-ins and walkouts over the dress code and other issues. “For the most part,’' he says, “I really despised school.’'

Nonetheless, after high school, Peterson took a job as a teacher’s aide in Milwaukee. His first day on the job did little to improve his opinion of public schools. It happened to coincide with the first day of busing to desegregate the school system. Black students were being bused to his predominantly white high school. The bus arrived late, and as the wary students emerged, a physical education teacher stood at the school door noisily demanding that they go get tardy slips. “I couldn’t believe it,’' Peterson says. “Here are these kids, they’re scared, and this gym teacher is yelling at them.’'

Surprising even himself, Peterson subsequently enrolled in the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, got a degree, and began teaching in a city school in 1980.

Like Peterson, Tenorio had not set her sights on a career in teaching while growing up in the Milwaukee suburbs. But as a young woman coming of age on the verge of the women’s movement, it was one of three career options suggested by her high school counselors. “They told me I could be a teacher, a social worker, or a nurse,’' she recalls. She chose social work. But during her field experience at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee, she discovered how much she enjoyed children. So, Tenorio switched majors and in the early 1970s, took her first full-time teaching job at an all-black, inner-city parochial school.

She liked the work. Her students’ parents had high expectations for them and were actively involved in their education. But the pay was bad; after eight years at the school, she was only making $8,000 a year. To gain some financial security and to get involved in a new bilingual education program, Tenorio decided to move to the public schools.

The switch, however, was not all positive. She was surprised to find that parental expectations and involvement in her new school were both disappointingly low. And she was soon disenchanted with the curriculum and pedagogy the district imposed. At the parochial school, she had been free to use components of what is now known as the whole language approach to instruction. But not at her new public school. It seemed that each year, the district added another basal reader to get through. “I really resisted having to do some of the things public schools said we had to do,’' says Tenorio, whose principal gave her some leeway. “At times, it really did feel like I was a subversive. If there was a choice between painting on an easel or [completing] two workbook pages, in my mind there was no choice.’'

Peterson and Tenorio met in 1980 at a meeting of the city’s human relations committee and quickly realized they shared many of the same educational philosophies and concerns, including an unhappiness with the city’s public school system. “We sort of connected at that point,’' Tenorio says. Strengthened by their mini-alliance, both plunged into more civic and school activities.

In the mid-1980s, Tenorio and Peterson began meeting regularly with a group of educators who shared their frustrations--both with the school system and with the lack of leadership in the teachers’ union. The Milwaukee school district was plagued with all the problems of major urban districts: rampant truancy; a severe dropout problem; declining test scores; low grade-point averages; and a growing minority enrollment coupled with a lack of minority teachers. The central office and the school board were formulating reform plans, but without much input from teachers or their union.

Peterson, Tenorio, and their colleagues decided they needed to find a way to stir up the waters and get more people involved--some sort of sustained way to promote their ideas.

So, the idea for Rethinking Schools was born.

As one member of the group would later write: “Rethinking Schools is the child of our frustration with how little voice teachers are allowed in the debates over what is and what should be happening in the schools. In Milwaukee, as elsewhere, the public schools are in deep trouble. But most of the people authoritatively offering solutions to the public have been central office officials, legislators, and businessmen. When the blue ribbon commissions are established to investigate the schools and offer reforms they usually include only one or two classroom teachers, often invited as an afterthought. As pawns rather than respected colleagues in the search for school reform, teachers often feel isolated and powerless.’'

The newspaper was created to end the isolation and impotence and make teachers central players in reform. “We no longer wanted to be on the defensive all the time on school issues,’' says Peterson. “We wanted to have a vehicle in which we could begin to address in a proactive way issues that affect teachers and parents.’'

The first idea was to produce something like an academic journal. But that idea soon gave way to a newspaper format, which seemed more appropriate for their mission and more accessible to teachers and the community. Moreover, the availability of desktop publishing software would enable them to do much of the work themselves.

Once a format was established, the group developed a statement of purpose, which still appears in essentially its original form in every issue under the headline “Who We Are.’' The educators vigorously debated whether their publication would incorporate a cross section of viewpoints or speak with one voice. In the end, they decided that unity would be more powerful.

They chose not to shy away from confrontation. Tenorio’s “Confessions of a Kindergarten Teacher,’' the lead article in the first issue, set the rebellious tone for the publication. In it, she revealed her pedagogical transgression--forsaking the basal reader.

In the early days, the editors didn’t know if Rethinking Schools would survive. When the newspaper first went to press in the 1986-87 school year, the group didn’t even have enough money to pay the printer. What little they had was scrounged up from house parties, donations, and $10 voluntary subscriptions.

When most of the writing was completed for each issue, the educators, who had but a fleeting knowledge of journalism and the production process, would set up shop in one of the editors’ apartments.

David Levine, a former Milwaukee teacher and a member of the original group, recalls one of the early deadline periods: “For the next four days, my small Milwaukee flat would cease being a home in any normal sense of the word. Every flat surface-- kitchen table, study desk, borrowed card table--was covered with layout paper. Extra lamps had been imported to augment my dim lighting and an ugly brown filing cabinet had displaced my living room rocking chair I would have no place to cook dinner, no privacy, and little rest. I was entering a temporary throwback to my early days of political activism, when we cheerfully let the greater cause jostle and shove personal life into the corner.’'

The lack of money and amenities were not the only obstacles. Initially, the teachers were also concerned about repercussions from administrators who might take umbrage at the hard-edged copy. After the second issue was published, Peterson was summoned to his principal’s office. Although personally supportive of the endeavor, the principal warned him to be cautious. As Peterson recalls, the principal said: “It’s like the McCarthy era down at central office. Just tell your people to be very careful.’'

But nothing untoward occurred. In fact, a member of the original group, Cynthia Ellwood, was later moved, under a new district administration, into the central office as coordinator of a K-12 curriculum reform project. She subsequently became the school system’s curriculum director, resigning from the newspaper’s staff to avoid any potential conflict of interest.

Many who know the teachers doubt that political repercussions would have quieted them anyway. Says Erin Krause, a newspaper volunteer who teaches with Tenorio and Peterson: “They aren’t afraid to step on people’s toes.’'

Nothing was immune from scrutiny. Even the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association became the target of their criticism, which produced cries of alarm from within the union. According to Tenorio, many union officials were convinced that Rethinking Schools had been created as a vehicle to attack and undermine the MTEA. Some union members, Peterson says, even thought the newspaper was being underwritten by another union.

Undermining MTEA “certainly was not the purpose,’' Tenorio says. But, she adds, the publication was created to challenge every teacher in the school system, including the union leadership. “We can no longer run the union as we have in the past 25 years,’' she says.

In 1989, the teacher-editors’ financial plight was eased temporarily thanks to the first of several small grants from the New World Foundation of New York City. Says Ann Bastian, a senior program officer at the foundation: “We became interested in Rethinking Schools not only because of the quality but also because we thought the paper provided a forum in a way that teachers could really connect to the community. Rethinking Schools was very crucial in getting teachers actively and independently thinking about school change themselves.’' And because the ideas were not being generated from outsiders, she adds, teachers “were not stuck in a defensive position and could help set the agenda, which they should be doing.’'

The content of Rethinking Schools focuses on many of the crucial issues facing urban educators and parents today, as well as societal issues and teaching methods. The editors pay particular attention to multicultural issues. The paper has run indepth articles about tracking, whole language, school choice, standardized testing, and teacher evaluation, among other topics.

The front page of the March/April 1992 issue offers: “The Illusion of Choice’’ and “Examining Proposals for Improving [Milwaukee’s Public Schools]: Reform vs. Scapegoating.’' Inside stories include: “Teachers Evaluating Teachers,’' “Recession Goes to the Head of the Class,’' and “Experimenting with Assessment.’'

Most of the articles are written by the core group of editors, although a small stable of correspondents from school systems elsewhere in the country also contribute stories. The writing style is a blend of reportage, analysis, and advocacy. It is the rare article that leaves the reader wondering on what side of the issue the writer falls. The editors have a number of firmly held opinions. They oppose, for example, choice and the creation of so-called “charter schools.’' And they are critical of standardized testing.

The newspaper also excerpts articles and books by prominent education writers and researchers such as Jonathan Kozol and Linda Darling-Hammond, a professor of education at Teachers College at Columbia University. Parents and politicians occasionally contribute articles to Rethinking Schools, as well. The back page is reserved for the art, prose, and poetry of schoolchildren.

Linda Christensen, a high school teacher in Portland, Ore., is one of the regular contributors. “The thing that I really find exciting about Rethinking Schools is that it is a collection of teachers who are putting it together,’' Christensen says. “Most publications that I’ve seen are specific toward a content area or issues in education. But Rethinking Schools really combines all of those. It’s about classroom practice, but also about the large issues and struggles in education. And it comes from a perspective that is both pro-teacher and pro-student and, at the same time, pro-parent and pro-community.’'

The paper has grown from a 6,000 circulation periodical to one nearing 40,000, with an audience as far flung as New Jersey, Kentucky, and California. While the publication is free to Milwaukee teachers, it also has 2,000 paid subscribers, most from outside the metropolitan area. This latter group includes a number of teacher educators who use the newspaper in their classrooms. After seeing an issue for the first time, Joyce Penfield, an associate professor of education at Rutgers University, ordered back issues for her students. “It raises very important topics,’' says Penfield, noting that it tends to be ahead of most other educational journals. “It’s very applicable to what I see is good teaching, good learning, and good education.’'

Even though its budget has nearly doubled over the past few years to about $64,000, the paper is by no means a flush operation. Its founders have been able to raise enough money to hire two part-time employees, including a managing editor, and rent modest office space, but it still is mainly produced by volunteers. Dozens show up to unload the printed copies and sort them for distribution to schools, churches, libraries, and other area locales.

The editors have published a few advertisements but generally eschew them because of the potential conflict between the ads and the paper’s rebellious philosophy. They also acknowledge that this same philosophy has hindered efforts to score additional foundation support. Consequently, they are putting their energies into expanding the paid subscriber list to 6,000. And the publishers have launched a fundraising campaign, asking readers to make an annual pledge to the publication.

As the quincentenary of Columbus’s voyage to America approached, the editors of Rethinking Schools began to devote considerable space to the explorer. As Peterson puts it, they wanted to provide an “alternative voice’’ to all the heroic depictions of Columbus that would be forthcoming.

The Columbus articles were so well received that the editors decided to repackage them, along with several other pieces on the topic, into a 95-page booklet titled Rethinking Columbus. It turned out to be a big success. First published in September 1991, the booklet is now in its fifth printing and has sold more than 165,000 copies. Orders have come from all parts of the United States and Canada, as well as such exotic locales as Belize and Japan. The Atlanta school system alone purchased 5,000 copies.

The success of Rethinking Columbus was a blessing, but it also posed some problems. For example, the office workload increased dramatically. Even today, about two-thirds of the 30 to 80 pieces of mail the newspaper receives daily is related to the Columbus booklet. Realizing that they could no longer handle the volume of mail along with all the other demands, the teacher-editors hired Barbara Miner, a parent and former reporter for The Milwaukee Journal, as a part-time managing editor.

Says Peterson: “Rethinking Columbus propelled us onto the national scene,’' albeit reluctantly.

To help the newspaper broaden its outlook as its national audience widens, the editors recently established a national advisory board. Their hope is that it will help critique the newspaper, identify prospective writers with differing perspectives, and raise funds.

Although the focus of Rethinking Schools has been on Milwaukee, its tone and message clearly have struck a chord with teachers elsewhere. Christina Brinkley, a member of the advisory board, says the paper has had a serendipitous effect. About three years ago, letters started arriving from grateful teachers relieved to learn that they were not alone in their attempts to improve their schools. “The letters were almost heart wrenching,’' says Brinkley, an associate professor of sociology and women’s studies at Bates College in Maine. Until they started reading the newspaper, she says, “those lone teachers had been isolated.’'

Adds Christensen of Portland: “Rethinking Schools enables us to look at our local issues in terms of a national picture.’'

Another project that grew out of Rethinking Schools has also contributed to the paper’s growing national prominence. Five years ago, Peterson and Tenorio and a number of fellow teachers and parents who advocate activism as an instrument for changing public schools began holding informal meetings. As the group grew, so did its reputation; people from other parts of the country began calling. Things snowballed, and last year the National Coalition of Education Activists officially came into being with 500 dues-paying members.

The coalition, which Peterson co-chairs, serves as a clearinghouse and resource center for parents and teachers. It also sponsors forums in different parts of the country and hosts an annual summer conference. This year’s theme is “Breaking Barriers: Schools and Social Justice in our Communities.’'

Despite its growing readership and sphere of influence, Rethinking Schools’ emphasis is still largely on Milwaukee. “We pick articles that we think are going to move things ahead,’' Peterson says. If the overall perspective shifts to a national audience, Peterson and Tenorio fear the newspaper will become abstract.

What’s more, many articles have a hometown political flavor that might be lost if the emphasis shifts. This past spring, for example, the paper ran a piece knocking various community and school leaders-- school board members, the mayor, a mayoral aide, and a local radio and television station--for taking whacks at the schools. “Criticizing [Milwaukee Public Schools] is not the problem; this newspaper has never been shy about criticizing MPS,’' Peterson wrote. “What is disturbing is the lack of analysis behind many of the current criticisms and the potential dangers in several of the proposed ‘solutions.’'

The periodical’s Milwaukee focus has made it a must read for local policymakers. Even those who are the occasional targets of criticism appreciate the paper’s overall high quality. “The publication is wellwritten; its thinking is supported by background data, interviews, good writing,’' says Milwaukee Mayor John Norquist. “It’s really an important part of Milwaukee’s political culture now.’'

The paper’s main flaw, he says, is that it is too much a part of the establishment. “Their reform is within the system; they don’t threaten the basic premise of the system,’' he says, citing the newspaper’s opposition to parental choice. “If we are going to keep the basic system we have, then Rethinking Schools has all kinds of great ideas.’'

Martin Haberman, a professor of education at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, also credits Rethinking Schools for coming up with imaginative and creative ideas. But Haberman, whose research focuses largely on urban education, doubts that the newspaper has accomplished much within the Milwaukee public schools. “I wouldn’t credit them with changing anything,’' he says. “They’re nice liberal people. They’re good people, hard working, trying to deal with the issues of the day.’'

Haberman fears that the publication is not reaching the appropriate audience. “The liberals that they appeal to all live in the suburbs,’' he says. Haberman says he wishes he had the money to make sure that all the parents in the city received copies. And, he adds, “I wish the school board directors and the budget people and the state legislators read it.’'

Because they want to be taken seriously by everyone from fellow teachers to innercity parents and state lawmakers, the editors take great pains to produce a topnotch product. They reject roughly twothirds of the articles submitted by outside writers. But they are equally tough, if not tougher, on their own work. They spiked their premier edition, slated for mid-1986 publication, because it did not meet the standards they had set for themselves.

The editorial rigor, of course, has meant lots of work and long hours for the teachers involved. Hiring Miner as managing editor has given the teachereditors a little extra time to carry out their everincreasing responsibilities.

Peterson’s and Tenorio’s schedules are particularly dizzying. They both generally arrive at school at about 7:15 a.m. and put in a full day there. After school, they attend union, newspaper, or district committee meetings about four days a week. And then there are the night meetings. Tenorio says she often doesn’t get home until after 9:30 p.m.

Weekends, too, are frequently taken up with business. On one Saturday, for example, Tenorio spent the entire day in union meetings while Peterson revised several newspaper stories. They both worked on the newspaper on Sunday from 1 in the afternoon until 9:30 that night, and then they had to get up bright and early the next morning for a 6:30 meeting.

Their growing celebrity has also made them hot commodities on the conference circuit. This is particularly true for Tenorio, who last year was named Wisconsin Teacher of the Year. One friend marvels that Tenorio is able to attend “30 meetings a day but still knows somehow about Bart Simpson or a [news] report.’'

Says Paulette Copeland, an elementary reading teacher who contributes time to Rethinking Schools: “I don’t really think anyone would be willing to put in the time they are willing to put in.’'

But Peterson and Tenorio, neither of whom is married, insist that the long hours and the wrangling are necessary if they are to fulfill their mission. A quick glance at some of their recent accomplishments shows that their efforts aren’t for naught.

A series the paper ran helped persuade former Milwaukee Superintendent Robert Peterkin to spend $100,000 that had been earmarked for basal textbooks on other materials instead. Articles convinced the district to form a council to help schools adopt the whole language approach. And the publication played a role in swaying the school board to block an outcome-based education approach and a consultant’s student-assignment plan.

The district’s assessment task force, which Peterson co-chairs, successfully persuaded the district to replace a 3rd grade standardized test with a 4th grade holistic assessment--a move Rethinking Schools had advocated.

Says Mary Bills, a district school board member and former chair of the board’s curriculum committee: “Many of [the newspaper’s] board members were instrumental in helping us change our curriculum. They showed the same dedication to developing our curriculum process as they do to putting out a very timely and useful publication. I’m generally very supportive of the role they play. They make us think, they occasionally make us change what we do, and they bring something to the table.’'

Tenorio and Peterson attribute their successes to hard work, a proven track record in the classroom, and a tested political strategy. “We have been able to criticize and take issue with policy, but at the same time we have been willing to get involved in the traditional mode of things,’' Tenorio says.

Between meetings on a cool Sunday evening, Tenorio and Peterson stop at a neighborhood restaurant to grab a quick bite to eat. A young woman, an American Indian college student majoring in journalism, approaches their table. A dinner companion has pointed them out to her, and she wants to tell them how much she appreciates the wonderful job they are doing. Please let her know, she says, if she can help in any way.

No, they quip, it wasn’t a put-up job for the benefit of the reporter traipsing around with them. But they are obviously pleased, not so much because of the compliment but because they have a potential new recruit who seems to possess many of the qualities they look for to get the job done.

First and foremost these days, that job is their work at Fratney Street School. “In Rethinking Schools, we try to offer a vision of what we think should take place in public schools,’' Tenorio says. “We always try to provide a model. At Fratney, we’re trying to take the best of that vision.’'

Located five blocks from the newspaper’s headquarters, Fratney bears the distinct character of a yesteryear neighborhood schoolhouse. Standing four stories tall, the two-tone brown school sits in the middle of a large paved block enclosed by metal fencing.

When Peterson learned that the district planned to close the 80-year-old structure, he saw an opportunity. He called Tenorio and suggested that they marshal their resources and try to convince the school board not to shut the school but hand it over to them. As Tenorio remembers it, she replied, “OK, we’ll work on it.’' But then, she recalls, “he told me we had to be ready to go by the next week. I said, ‘You’re crazy.’

What made Fratney particularly appealing as a site for their experimental school was that it is located in Riverwest, one of the few racially and ethnically mixed communities in Milwaukee. In recent years, this neighborhood of modest bungalows and industry has become home to a socioeconomic brew of blue-collar workers, artists, and professionals.

Tenorio and Peterson quickly organized neighborhood parents and community leaders and launched a successful campaign to persuade the school board to keep Fratney open and let a new staff try a new approach to teaching and learning. “We won,’' Peterson says. “We were flabbergasted; all of a sudden we were in charge of a school.’'

But the euphoria was premature. True, the school board had given them the go ahead, but the central office dragged its feet. District administrators, as it turned out, had their own plan for the school. It wasn’t until the district administration changed a short time later and Peterkin became superintendent that Peterson, Tenorio, and their colleagues were given the free reign and support they had sought.

Describing the school’s current mission is akin to executing a tongue twister: Fratney is an EnglishSpanish bilingual, whole language, site-based managed, neighborhood specialty school.

It’s now Monday morning, and Tenorio and her kindergartners--equipped with paper, pencils, and clipboards--stroll around the schoolyard writing down observations for their lesson. The class--a mixture of white, black, and Hispanic children--heads back inside the bright, cheery school and down its wide halls and glossy wooden floors.

Then Tenorio, poised with a marker over a piece of newsprint, asks the children, seated in a circle on the floor, what they saw on this “el lunes, el dos, marzo.’'

Hands shoot up and wave. Birds, the school, the ground, telephone lines, un carro, un palo. Even though they are in their first year of exposure to the different languages, the English-speaking youngsters appear to comprehend their Spanish-speaking classmates and vice versa.

Two floors below, Peterson is playing host to a group of visiting teachers from Chicago. Explaining Fratney’s bilingual approach, he tells them that the teachers at the school build on a child’s native language and then help them transfer those skills to the other language.

“The test of our success,’' he tells one of the visitors, “would be our ability to reach the kids who aren’t succeeding.’'

Peterson is in the parents’ resource room, where members of the community are welcome all day long. A paid coordinator works full time to ensure parental and community involvement. Children come in and pepper “Bob’’ with all sorts of questions. Addressing teachers by their first names, a verboten practice in most schools, is the norm here among students and parents. It is one small way the staff makes parents feel on equal footing with the teachers.

At Fratney, Peterson is officially known as the program implementer. But essentially he is a jack of all trades: the photocopier repairman, recess coordinator, curriculum planner, and teacher. He teaches small reading groups and writing workshops and team teaches social studies.

Because the program at Fratney is only in its fourth year, the school’s faculty and district officials are reluctant to talk in terms of success or failure. An accurate assessment, they say, may be possible in another year or two.

Tenorio’s assessment, so far, is mixed. On the positive side, she says, is the nurturing school climate. On the negative: “Kids still come to school with problems that inner-city kids have,’' she says, and some Anglo students see no reason to learn Spanish. “School climate may be the most important thing for some kids,’' she adds, "[but] you can’t be satisfied that because they’re happy to be at school that is enough.’'

Parent Catherine Liptack had planned to teach her two sons at home until she visited Fratney and learned about the program. “I think the atmosphere is very open and very caring,’' she says. “There is a real sense that everyone is looking out for each other.’' Overall, Liptack says she is pleased with her 2nd grader’s progress, but she worries about class size. “Even in this program,’' she laments, “there are too many kids.’'

As for Tenorio and Peterson, Liptack says: “They’re both whirlwinds. Rita is a vivacious, full-of-energy person who is always moving. She is dynamic. Bob is more low key, but he has a real strong behind-thescenes leadership style. I think he basically runs the school. He has a way of making things work and keeping things going. He can do five things at once and still be nice to everybody.’'

Peterson and Tenorio’s juggling act also includes the MTEA, the largest unaffiliated local teachers’ union in the country. Both were elected to the executive board five years ago but, according to Peterson, represented such a minority voice that they were virtually ineffective.

Last year, however, the two of them ran as part of a reform slate, and a majority of the progressive candidates were elected; Tenorio was elected vice president and Peterson was re-elected to the union’s executive board.

Mayor Norquist believes the new leadership from Rethinking Schools has an opportunity to open up the union to fresh ideas. “The previous [leaders] felt threatened by their own elections,’' he says. “You had a lot of sclerosis of the arteries.’'

Says Peterson: “I want our union to be an advocate, not a barrier, to reform.’' He notes that there are already signs of progress: The MTEA is promoting a mentor program and supporting curriculum reform.

But Tenorio says the election has not eliminated tensions within the MTEA. Tenorio, for example, wants the union to retreat from its traditional adversarial approach to doing business, a stance that some within the organization argue is the equivalent to “giving away the store.’' That assertion, she says, is untrue. “I am an advocate of teachers,’' she declares. “I think we have to look at new ways of interacting.’'

As a result of all their labor, Tenorio and Peterson have come to be seen by many as the leaders of school reform in Milwaukee. But Christensen describes them another way. “Organizers would be the term that I would use,’' she says. “They are really trying to organize the community around the school people in a way that is not around cookies and teas.’'

Tenorio agrees that organizer is the more accurate assessment. One of their main goals, she says, is to involve others in school reform. “Every person working on a small piece can accomplish something,’' she says. She points to Erin Krause, who volunteers for each issue of Rethinking Schools despite having a young child and a full-time job. “That is a big sacrifice for her,’' she says.

Besides, Tenorio declares, “I’m not going to be able to continue at this pace forever. There are days when I want it to all go away.’' She pauses for a moment, and then adds, almost as an afterthought: “I’m a driven person; I need to be challenged all the time.’'

Both Tenorio and Peterson have been urged to turn their leadership and organizational talents to a principalship or some other administrative post. But they believe the only people who can really turn schools around are teachers--working primarily through the union. “We can’t do that once we become part of the administration,’' Peterson says. “Plus,’' he adds, a grin spreading across his face, “we love to teach.’'

This is the third in a series of profiles of teacher leaders underwritten by the Pew Charitable Trusts.

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1992 edition of Teacher as Dynamic Duo