Jesse Jackson Helps N.E.A. Put 'Focus on Educational Change'

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For the first time in the history of the National Education Association, delegates to the union's annual convention this year paused to talk formally about their role in improving schools.

For nearly three hours during the four-day gathering here last week, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson moderated a professionally produced and scripted "Focus on Educational Change." The presentation was part pep rally, part discussion of education issues, and in part a forum for Mr. Jackson, the veteran civil-rights and political leader, to air his own views.

Interspersed with video clips, jazzy music, and somber statistics about the condition of American children were opportunities for the N.E.A. delegates to participate. They used red-and-green hand fans and 2,000 electronic devices called "zingers" to register their views on several questions facing teachers, such as school-based management, technology, and the role of local and state unions in school improvement.

Dressed in a simple black shirt and black slacks, Mr. Jackson told the nearly 9,000 delegates that his attire symbolized the need for children to focus on education, rather than view themselves as clothes models.

"In America, we are all somebody," he declared. "That which waters the tree of life is the development of our minds."

Most of the delegates wore bright blue T-shirts decorated with a picture of children drawn by a California 6th grader. Proceeds from the sale of the shirts, printed with the slogan "Public Education Works for America," will pay for $1,000 mini-grants for local unions involved in educational change.

Differing With the Public

The session also featured the results of a questionnaire that delegates filled out at registration. They answered the same questions asked last fall by the Public Agenda Foundation, which found educators and the public at odds over school reform. (See Education Week, 10/12/94.)

Members of the public, the delegates heard during the presentation, believe drugs and violence top the list of problems in public schools, followed by low academic standards, not enough emphasis on basics, and lack of money.

N.E.A. delegates, in contrast, said lack of money was the primary problem with schools, followed by drugs and violence, overcrowded classrooms, and low academic standards.

"It is that public whose child you teach, who you expect to pay you," Mr. Jackson observed.

"Parents want their children to be safe in schools and learn the basics," he added. "And they will desert the public schools if they are concerned that they aren't. We can't take their support for granted."

Drawing on stories from his youth in South Carolina, the 53-year-old Baptist minister also made a strong plea for character education as a way to restore faith in public schools. He argued that extreme conservatives have taken over the issue while educators have remained silent.

Grassroots Innovation

Using video clips from the N.E.A.'s "Teacher TV" program, the session highlighted places where teachers have abandoned 100-year-old ways of conducting school. Featured were:

Longfellow Elementary School in Riverside, Calif., which has provided on-site space for social-service agencies to deal with students' problems.
The City Academy, a St. Paul charter school launched by teachers to serve students who were failing in other schools.
The act Academy in McKinney, Tex., where educators are trying to preserve the feel of a one-room schoolhouse but are using technology to teach 250 K-12 students.

Union leaders from Washington State took the stage to tell about changes in their local associations. Bruce Colwell, the executive director of the Seattle Education Association, described the problems the 4,500-member union faced five years ago.

"Members were feeling powerless," he said, and believed the union "promoted conflict and ignored poorly performing teachers."

The local union negotiated a peer-mentoring program for both new teachers and those having problems in the classroom. And it reached out to elected officials, business leaders, and parents to build support for schools.

Questions on Charters

Using their electronic zingers, the delegates were asked to rank the "greatest potential" they see in charter schools. More than 65 percent said such schools have the potential to create unique learning environments; 18 percent said the school employees could make changes faster in such schools, which operate outside the regulations governing most public schools.

Delegates also were asked what legal assurances they would want to work in a charter school. While they were conferring on the question, some delegates began chanting, "No charter schools! No charter schools!"

After the chanting died down, delegates said protecting teachers' due-process rights and providing equal funding were the most important ingredients for charter schools.

Asked what they would wish for if they had magic wands, delegates spoke of the need for more cooperation and collaboration so the public understands what one teacher called the "small victories" of schools. They also want their local associations to help educate the community and to provide staff development.

Joann Bodell, a delegate from Idaho Falls, Idaho, said she welcomed the emphasis on educational change.

"We have to be a player," she said. "Our members want more focus on educational issues."

Vol. 14, Issue 40

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