Union Makes Offer That Befuddles N.Y.C. Officials

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What the United Federation of Teachers had pitched as a bold proposition to turn around a failing school was met last week by confusion among some New York City central administrators who said they were willing to work with the union but unsure what the UFT was actually offering to do.

Randi Weingarten

The overture came May 16 at the annual meeting of the huge local of the American Federation of Teachers, when President Randi Weingarten presented a 10-point plan for improving Public School 63, an elementary school in the borough of the Bronx. The UFT's executive council picked Ms. Weingarten in February to fill the shoes of Sandra Feldman, who left the post to devote full attention to her position as president of the AFT.

The plan included smaller class sizes, research-based literacy programs and a basic curriculum with art and music, increased parent involvement, improved professional development, and an extended school day and year "with staff paid for their additional time."

Ms. Weingarten described the arrangement as a "joint venture" between her 130,000-member organization and the school board of the 1.1-million student system.

"We're sticking our necks out here," the local president said in a speech to UFT members. "We're putting our reputation on the line by taking what in all candor is one of the lowest-performing schools in the city, and saying we can make it so much better that parents will want in."

Beyond 'Triage'

Some district officials who attended the union's meeting said they liked what they heard, but didn't understand how the plan represented a new partnership between the union and administrators. One local newspaper also reported the union wanted the board to "turn over to teachers one of the city's worst, failing schools," a characterization Ms. Weingarten said was inaccurate.

Judith A. Rizzo, the district's deputy chancellor for curriculum and instruction, said nine of the 10 points already are part of the school system's improvement agenda. The last recommendation on the UFT's list is to replace the school's principal if Chancellor Rudolph F. Crew decides a change in leadership is needed.

"None of the items was a surprise to us," Ms. Rizzo said. "All of this we've proposed and lobbied for an adequate budget to do."

Ms. Rizzo further questioned what risks the union was taking on by proposing the improvement plan. "It all represents, to my knowledge, inputs from the board, but what is the union bringing to the table?" she said.

"Part of what will be required," Ms. Weingarten responded later last week, "are some contractual changes, and that's what we can bring to the table. But the other thing we bring to the table is our expertise." The proposal, she said, was intended to get staff members and management to focus on carrying out the 10 recommendations to show that together they can yield improvements.

Mr. Crew two years ago added PS 63 to his list of schools targeted for extra attention from the central administration, but UFT officials say the school has yet to show much improvement.

"Unfortunately, a lot of times the city schools are given triage-like treatment," Ms. Weingarten said. "So you do it halfway, instead of fully."

The 836-student school serves families from the surrounding neighborhood and about 150 students bused there for special education services. Fifty-six percent of its students are Hispanic; 44 percent are African-American.

Principal Gillian W. Williams, who's been at PS 63 for a year, challenged the idea that the school had not improved. Test results this year show the school making progress, both she and the chancellor's office said.

Ms. Weingarten said she was "surprised and a little disappointed" by the administration's response to her proposal. "It was made in absolute good faith."

Vol. 17, Issue 37, Page 6

Published in Print: May 27, 1998, as Union Makes Offer That Befuddles N.Y.C. Officials
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