Column One: Teachers

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"Fighting for the Truth," shouts the three-column headline in 50-point bold type on the front page of the tabloid. "Minneapolis to Reduce Class Sizes," blazes the 28-point headline atop the following story.

Well, maybe they don't shout or blaze. And maybe they're not exactly the sensational stuff of the big-city tabloids. But, in its own way, Rethinking Schools, an independent teacher-produced publication, has struck a nerve in the Milwaukee education community since it made its debut five years ago.

From its first press run of 6,000 copies, the journal that blends hard-hitting analysis and advocacy has evolved into a 34,000-circulation two-color tabloid that is sophisticated enough to incorporate a four-page wraparound section produced by and targeted at Portland, Ore., educators.

"It certainly has grown beyond any of my expectations," says Rita Tenorio, a district kindergarten teacher and a member of the paper's editorial board.

Until this past January, when teachers and parents in New York City launched a similarly designed journal, Rethinking Schools was believed to be the only district-level publication of its kind, a quarterly unaffiliated with either a union or a district.

Although its editorial board--four Milwaukee teachers and two professors--write the majority of the articles, teachers and academicians from other regions contribute pieces. The back page is reserved for schoolchildren, and occasionally articles crop up from parents and politicians.

A Comprehensive Publication

In the 1960's and 1970's, education activists produced a half dozen or so somewhat similar publications now long defunct, according to the author and educator Herbert Kohl.

But "none of them put together in such a comprehensive way the scholarship, the intellectual and social criticism, the sensitivity to everyday functioning in the classroom, and the issues of cultural class," says Mr. Kohl, a visiting professor at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn. "I think this is a major achievement."

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 techniques. And it attacks them with a distinct point of view.

For instance, the journal has published a number of stories critical of tracking. The shortcomings of school choice have also provided ample fodder for the paper's pages.

As the quincentenary of Columbus's voyage to America approaches, the journal has devoted considerable space to the explorer. In a lengthy critique of children's literature in the October/November 1990 issue, Bill Bigelow, a Portland teacher, contends that by downplaying or ignoring Columbus's slaughter and enslavement of Native Americans, the literature neither challenges students to think critically nor sensitizes them to contemporary social issues.

The journal was started by a group of veteran teachers and educators.

"We no longer wanted to be on the defensive all the time on school issues in Milwaukee," says Bob Peterson, a teacher at the Fratney Street School and a co-editor. "We wanted to have a vehicle in which we could begin to address in a proactive way issues that affect teachers and parents."

The editors, he says, also wanted to focus on racism and inequality in the public schools, vital topics in a system in which about 70 percent of the 99,000 students are children of color and about 80 percent of the teachers are white.

Initially, there was concern among some of the teachers about potential repercussions from administrators who might take umbrage at some of the copy.

After publication of the second issue, Mr. Peterson was summoned to his principal's office in the school where he taught previously. Although personally supportive of the endeavor, the principal warned him to be careful. "It's like the McCarthy era down at central office," Mr. Peterson recalls the principal saying. "Just tell your people to be very careful."

But nothing untoward occurred. Under a new administration, in fact, one of the co-editors, Cynthia Ellwood, has been moved into the central administration as coordinator of a K-12 curriculum-reform project.

Humble Beginnings

None of the group had more than a fleeting involvement with journalism or publishing when they began the enterprise. They operated out of individual homes, scattering paste-up boards throughout the house in the week before the paper was put to bed.

When the journal first went to press at the beginning of the 1986-87 school year, the publishers didn't have enough money in their bank account to pay the printer.

What money they did get came from house parties, donations, and $10 voluntary subscriptions.

Two years ago, the journal received a small grant from the New World Foundation in New York that enabled it to rent office space and to hire a part-time office manager. A series of small grants have followed, as have about 1,200 paid subscrib6ers. Last year's budget hit $32,000.

They have published a few advertisements but generally eschew them because of the potential conflict between the ad and the paper's philosophy.

Rethinking Schools is hardly a flush operation, though. The writers and editors are all volunteers, and it still relies on a grassroots distribution network. Dozens of volunteers unload the copies and sort them for distribution to schools, churches, libraries, and other locales.

As its name implies, the newspaper practices advocacy journalism that promotes the idea of restructuring schools from the bottom up. "We're out there trying to make things change," Ms. Tenorio says.

In addition to publishing the journal, the editors are all active in the school system. Ms. Tenorio, for example, happens to be vice president of the teachers' union and Wisconsin's teacher of the year.

Shaping Policy

Rethinking Schools has been able to help shape policy on occasion. Through a series of articles, the journal helped persuade Superintendent of Schools Robert Peterkin to reconsider buying basal textbooks and spend the $100,000 instead on other reading materials. A whole-language council was formed out of which 12 schools adopted pilot programs for the teaching approach.

The publication also played a role in persuading the school board to stop an outcome-based education approach as well as a consultant's plan on student-assignment policies.

Where it has had perhaps the greatest impact, though, is in the formation of the Fratney Street School, according to Milwaukee's Mayor, John Norquist. The administration had wanted to set up a teacher-training program based on the precepts of the California educator Madeline Hunter in the abandoned school building. Instead, the building was converted into a bilingual, multicultural, site-based management school.

"A lot of [the journal's] philosophies are evident at Fratney," the Mayor says.

Although he has been a target of some of the newspaper's criticism, particularly for his advocacy of parental choice, Mayor Norquist says he finds Rethinking Schools "very valuable."

"It takes teaching very seriously," he says. "That is something the mass media don't often do."

"What it sparks is a lot of discussion among teachers about what is possible," adds Mary Diez, chair of the division of education at Alverno College in Milwaukee.

"It has practicing teachers very involved in it, people who are not safely outside the school system telling folks what should be happening," Ms. Diez says.

She also applauds the group for holding school officials accountable. "They challenge authority, in an often shameless way, but really call them to account," she says.

The tabloid has widened its sphere outside of Milwaukee and Wisconsin, circulating about 20 percent of its copies nationally. And the publication has built a small stable of writers, like Mr. Bigelow, from other districts.

Rethinking Schools also served as a catalyst of sorts for School Voices, a publication produced by a group of teachers and education activists in New York City.

Independent of Milwaukee, 20 or so New Yorkers had been talking about taking on such an endeavor for several years. "Seeing the Milwaukee paper and getting to meet Bob [Peterson] forced us to sit down and get this proposal together," says Don Murphy, a member of New York's editorial board.

Going National

Wrapping up its fifth year, the Milwaukee editorial board is debating taking a more national bent. "I'm real dubious of that," says Robert Lowe, a co-editor and a professor of education at National-Louis University. "Having the local context that we do gives us a lot of the power we have. I'm afraid that if we grow big, and we grow national, the kind of attentiveness we're able to give to things might soften."

Also under consideration is the creation of a national advisory board that would offer guidance and correct some blind spots, Mr. Lowe says.

What those blind spots might be stems in part from an editorial policy that imposes rigorous standards. Ms. Ellwood estimates that the group rejects at least 75 percent of the pieces it receives.

"The danger is that, sometimes, we may be excluding voices that are very important to hear and would not have access to other forms of publications," Mr. Lowe says.

The very reason, by the way, that Rethinking Schools was born.

Vol. 10, Issue 30

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