Contract For Change

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Sandra Feldman surveys the playground at P.S. 97 in the Baychester section of the Bronx, where dozens of young children with new backpacks and quietly contained energy are lining up for the first day of another school year. More than 50 years ago, Feldman was in their place, starting kindergarten. She can still vividly remember that day. "Walking into that kindergarten room, it was like a place of many mysteries and miracles," she says. "One section had this little house. That made the biggest impression on me because I lived in a chaotic home. This was a little house like you saw in books, with a kitchen and a sitting area. There was a music area, with the teacher's piano and cymbals."

There were no such luxuries in the city-owned slum in Brooklyn's Coney Island where Feldman lived with her father, a milkman, her mother, who sometimes worked in a bakery, and a brother and sister. The family was crammed into three rooms of a duplex occupied by four families--all sharing one bathroom. Later, when Feldman was 12, they moved into a low-rise brick housing project.

As president of the United Federation of Teachers, Sandra Feldman is one of New York's most influential labor leaders.

Feldman's ticket out of poverty was public education, and for the past three decades, she's been trying to return the favor: first as a classroom teacher; then as a leader of her local teachers' union, the United Federation of Teachers; and now as president of both the local and its national parent, the American Federation of Teachers. Schools are still Feldman's favorite places. And on this day, the UFT president, five months into her tenure as head of the AFT, is beaming in the September sunshine. She is here to inspect the new "transportable" classrooms that have been erected on P.S. 97's blacktop and at schools citywide.

The new classrooms are the fruit of the UFT's vigorous efforts to alleviate overcrowding. Here in New York City's District 11, the union fought a lengthy battle to reduce class size, part of a campaign that resulted last fall in a blizzard of 17,000 grievances over the issue, 60 percent of which the union won.

Those complaints, combined with the city's upcoming mayoral election and healthier city and state budgets, produced the transportables. They boast sparkling bathrooms for each class, air conditioning, intercoms, and computer outlets. But as Feldman tours the school--trailed by an entourage of reporters, camera crews, administrators, and union officials--she never lets up the pressure.

"Thank goodness for elections," she says as she passes through the cafeteria. "If it were not an election year, these little kids would be in here."

"Children shouldn't have to go to school in these transportables out in the schoolyard," she adds with characteristic bluntness. "They should have brick-and-mortar buildings." Then, with the television cameras still rolling, she plugs--as she will all morning--an upcoming state bond issue that could funnel about $1 billion to New York City for school construction.

Despite the progress she sees at P.S. 97, Feldman is dismayed by the condition of a piano she finds in a high-ceilinged kindergarten classroom. The instrument, with broken ivories, looks like it hasn't been played in years. As the media mill around, she asks a UFT representative to find a replacement for the neglected upright. The piano, Feldman says, should be "the center of the world in kindergarten."

Urban schools, and the children who attend them, are the center of Feldman's world. But she takes the helm of the 950,000-member American Federation of Teachers as dissatisfaction with urban schools is reaching unprecedented heights. And big-city teachers' unions, which make up the bulk of the AFT's membership, are feeling the heat. Across the nation, state and local officials are closing low-performing schools and reopening them with new teachers and principals. In Milwaukee and Cleveland, the teachers' unions are fighting voucher programs. In Chicago, radical governance reforms have quieted the once-mighty Chicago Teachers Union. And in Philadelphia, the AFT affiliate is at war with the superintendent and losing the public relations battle in the process.

Although Feldman has no children of her own, she seems to consider New York City's 1 million-plus students her family.

When the AFT executive council tapped the 57-year-old Feldman to succeed the late Albert Shanker in May, she came out swinging. In July, during her first major address to members as AFT president, she urged union leaders to help close and redesign failing schools--and to negotiate procedures for doing so. "Put very simply and most starkly," Feldman said, "I propose that we do not seek to defend or perpetuate failing schools to which we would not send our own children."

At the same time, Feldman believes districts are wrong to try to fix such schools by dismissing entire faculties and starting over from scratch without teacher input. "In most cases, they do it crudely--getting rid of teachers instead of bad practices," she wrote in September in the union's "Where We Stand" column, which appears in many newspapers and magazines. "This strategy, which goes by the ugly name of reconstitution, offers a simplistic response to a complicated problem."

In her national debut, a September 9 speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Feldman condemned the widespread practice of "social promotion." As part of the AFT's ongoing campaign for higher academic standards, she released a report describing grade-promotion policies across the nation and calling for early intervention for children falling behind in school.

There has never been any question about whether Feldman was up to the AFT job. As president of the 120,000-member United Federation of Teachers, she heads the largest local union affiliate of any kind in the world, with some 300 full-time staff and hundreds of part-time workers. The UFT is a major player in both local and state politics, dipping each election into the richest war chest in Albany to hand out campaign contributions to favored candidates. In her 11 years as UFT president, Feldman has gone up against five New York City schools chancellors, three mayors, and two governors.

Still, any assessment of Feldman is bound to begin with comparisons to Shanker. By the end of his life, the late AFT president had become a respected education statesman. But his milieu tended to be education and labor conferences--both in this country and abroad--not the classroom. Before assuming national office, Feldman visited schools as often as four times a week. Like Shanker, who relished comparing education systems around the world, Feldman talks a lot about making American schools internationally competitive. But while Shanker was inclined to praise a country's rigorous exam system, Feldman's more apt to applaud its preschools. Her unmistakable passion is children--especially poor children.

Although Feldman has no children of her own, she seems to consider New York City's 1 million-plus students her family. "These are our kids, and they are wonderful and totally misunderstood and misconstrued," she says on the Bronx school's blacktop. "There's a feeling out in the land about inner-city environments, that the kids are different. And they're not. They're just kids."

Urban schools and the children who attend them, are the center of Feldman's world.

It's of course too soon to know whether Feldman will earn the kind of national respect that Shanker enjoyed toward the end of his life. But her track record at the UFT offers a hint of the kind of leadership she will bring to the AFT. And that evidence shows she has been more of a reformer than a traditionalist.

The UFT, for example, long ago began experimenting with some of the reforms that the leadership of the National Education Association is just now asking affiliates to try. Since 1988, the UFT has sponsored a voluntary peer-intervention program for teachers experiencing difficulty. The UFT also took early responsibility for teachers' professional development, launching school-based Teacher Centers. And working with local colleges and universities, the union offers an array of courses and workshops, some leading to master's degrees. Leaders of teachers' unions from across the country regularly visit the city to check out school-level reforms and to consult David Sherman, the UFT's respected vice president for education programs.

When Feldman advocates closing and redesigning failing schools, she speaks from experience. In the preamble to the UFT's 200-page contract, the school board and the union agree to work together to close and restructure bad schools. The document contains detailed provisions for how to staff these new schools. Already the union has cooperated in the outright closure or redesign of dozens of schools, spurred in part by increased pressure from the state to improve the city's worst.

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