Teaching Opinion

Administration and Teachers’ Union Collaborate in Providence, R.I.

By John Wilson — March 11, 2013 4 min read
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Marian Kisch, a freelance writer out of Chevy Chase. MD, who writes a monthly column for the HOPE Foundationshares a guest blog today. She shares a story about the power and impact of collaboration between management and labor.

When Susan Lusi took over as superintendent of the Providence Public Schools over a year ago, four of its 39 schools were identified as low performing by state and federal education departments. Since she’s arrived, even more have been identified; currently 23 are labeled for some level of low performance.

In addition, both morale and student achievement were extremely low. This high poverty (85 percent qualify for free and reduced lunch), mostly minority (93% are students of color) district had lots of room for improvement.

The district also suffered because of the dire economic straits of the city of Providence. The new mayor discovered that the fiscal crisis was worse than he expected and instructed the school board to make huge cuts. In Rhode Island, teachers who may be fired have to be notified by March 1 of that possibility. Because of the mandate, every teacher in the district was terminated and five schools were closed. The city and the school district entered into new contract negotiations and most teachers were eventually called back.

“But, morale was low, to put it mildly,” Lusi says.

According to Providence Teachers Union President Steve Smith, after the terminations and resignation of the superintendent, negotiations with the city resulted in an exchange of financial concessions for job security and a no-layoff clause.

But the district still had to deal with its low-performing schools. According to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), a failing school has to apply one of four options to turn its schools around. Providence chose transformation for its first four schools, but when five more were identified, the state told the district that it could use transformation for only two more. So Providence chose the “restart” option to restructure the other three schools and exercised Rhode Island’s option to develop a labor management collaborative as part of that model.

Providence then took a very unusual step -- actually, the first in the nation to do so. Instead of hiring an outside Educational Management Organization (EMO) to come in, take over and run the schools, the district decided to handle it internally.United Providence (UP!), a non-profit educational organization dedicated to turning around low performing schools through labor management collaboration, was created. The Providence school board pays for the majority of UP! expenses, based on a performance contract; UP! has also attracted additional grants.

Both the administration and the teachers union are equal partners, with an equal commitment to turning schools around. Lusi and Smith are co-chairs of the United Providence board. Each leadership team in the three selected schools is chaired by the principal and the union’s building delegate.

“We believe that together, labor and management can turn around these schools,” Lusi says. “We have faith in our people, we have strength within.”

Teachers in these schools will have an opportunity to seek variances from union contracts and school board policy to make changes they believe will improve instruction, Smith says, such as enhancing curriculum or changing schedules. Already, every teacher in these schools is required to join a school committee, such as one on school culture or teaching and learning. Also, principals and delegates are now meeting together on a regular basis so they hear the same information at the same time.

According to Smith, teachers hope to seek more autonomy from the school board. There have been some signs already of how these schools are diverging from others. In the middle school, teachers are exploring ways to find more common planning time and adding more literacy instruction. At the high school, both teachers and UP! are looking into using a different math curriculum for students who are dramatically below acceptable achievement levels.

Although the current focus is on just three schools, Lusi hopes the rest of the district will follow a similar path. At a labor summit meeting in January with the heads of all the unions, including those for clerks and teaching assistants, more collaboration was stressed.

It hasn’t all been smooth sailing. Lusi says that because of the pressure from NCLB deadlines, the district had to move quickly and therefore did not have sufficient time to implement the program as she would have liked. Her preference would have been to get UP! running first so they could consult about the business plan and hiring of staff. Instead, Lusi and Smith had to hire the principals and staff at the same time as appointing UP!'s executive director. In fact, the 7-person UP staff was not complete until January.

As a result, the teachers are somewhat reticent about embracing this new initiative because UP! didn’t have much of a presence in the schools. But that is changing.

“We’re still in the preliminary stages,” Lusi says, “and there are some growing pains. We’ve tried to be honest about the work and the rewards.”

Although Smith admits district morale is not where it should be, “the superintendent is committed to aggressively improving the culture in the schools.”

“Collaboration is hard work but the right work,” Lusi says. “It’s the only way you’re going to turn around large numbers of schools.”

Smith agrees: “The path is extremely difficult because you’re trying to undo years of operating in a different way. Everyone has to get out of their comfort zone and learn to trust. It’s like an arranged marriage, with divorce being too costly.”

Both Lusi and Smith will be part of a panel to discuss their collaborative efforts at April’s National Forum on School Improvementin Virginia, hosted by the HOPE Foundation, NEA, AFT, and AASA.

The opinions expressed in John Wilson Unleashed are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.