First Person

Exclusive Excerpt: “Stray Dogs, Saints, And Saviors”

By traditional labor standards, the contract governing Green Dot charter schools is woefully insufficient — there’s no tenure, or right to strike — and the union itself is a misbegotten creation of founder Steve Barr’s imagination (a management, or “yellow” union). But public employee rights and union contracts vary substantially across the country, and public school teachers in many districts — and most charter school teachers — work without any formal collective bargaining authority at all.

So how much contract is enough? Is it all or nothing? This is one of the key issues of my book, “Stray Dogs, Saints, and Saviors,” which tracks the turnaround effort at a South Central Los Angeles high school called Locke where teachers petitioned to turn the school into a unionized charter school under Green Dot Public Schools. There are a handful of unionized charters already operating in the city (including a Green Dot high school opened with the support of Randi Weingarten), and the New York Times has reported that the city Department of Education is talking with Green Dot founder Steve Barr about doing a turnaround high school next year.

The excerpt below — part of the chapter that Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews referenced in his recent review of the book — gives a peek into how the contract played out that first year at the “new” Locke, when nearly all the teachers were new, hundreds more neighborhood kids had showed up than anyone had expected, and school administrators and Green Dot were scrambling to keep things afloat.

Previously uninterested in union issues, veteran art and drama teacher Monica Mayall became union rep for the building and began communicating teachers’ complaints about class size and other workload issues to the union president and Locke senior management. Campus aides weren’t in the halls when they were needed. Classroom phones didn’t work. The bells rang at random moments—worse than having no bells at all. Counselors and administrators sent notes to students during the middle of class, another bothersome interruption.

‘‘She grieved a litany of things,’’ said Coleman. ‘‘Some things I had bullheadedly gone into, trampling toes. Other things I was like, ‘Come on, Monica. How ticky-tacky are you going to get?’’’

But class size wasn’t a small issue, and wasn’t just a matter of teachers’ workloads. Green Dot was receiving federal class size reduction funds, which ostensibly brought class sizes down to twenty-eight for certain core academic subjects. The school could lose funding if the class sizes weren’t reduced.

For weeks, Mayall bugged everyone who would listen to her about the class sizes being too big. She talked about the issue at faculty meetings. She talked to Coleman. She talked to Green Dot people when they came on campus. Then, in mid-October, Mayall and the union filed a grievance against Green Dot over the class-size issue—the first such grievance filed in the organization’s history. There were thirty-six classes with over thirty-three students.

Officially, Green Dot welcomed concerns from teachers. But in practice, dealing with teachers’ complaints was complicated, and taking action could be expensive. Green Dot wanted to make sure that teachers’ class loads were ‘‘balanced’’—spread so that class sizes were even from section to section—before hiring anyone else. And it had the law on its side. Although the Green Dot talking points were clear about class size, the actual contract language merely set a target of twenty-four kids per class, and required conversations and unspecified relief measures. There was no hard-and-fast requirement that Green Dot hire more teachers or pay its current ones more as compensation (as is done in many districts).

This was no matter to Mayall; she would bother and embarrass administrators into responding even if they didn’t legally have to. She was pesky and persistent—annoyingly polite and impervious to the glances and hints that she should be a team player along with everyone else. She wasn’t giving up, either, sweet and relentless, annoying even those who agreed with her.

Her case was bolstered in early November when a rookie teacher was attacked by a special education student in one of the overstuffed classrooms. ‘‘I did not sign up for this,’’ wrote the teacher in a desperate e-mail, noting that there were several special education students in the classroom but none of the classroom aides that were supposed to be there to help. ‘‘please come to my class.’’ He didn’t come back the next day, and quit shortly thereafter.

Contract or no, it seemed clear after this incident that if something didn’t happen, other teachers would start leaving—at the end of the year if not before. Green Dot claimed a 90 percent retention rate for its teachers in the past. But a mass exodus from Locke could lower that number quickly.

Pushing her case even harder, Mayall finally sent a letter to Coleman, the senior managers at Green Dot, and the union: ‘‘Our students are not getting the intervention or support they need to master the curriculum—due in part to the sheer size of our school and the need for more instructors and smaller class sizes,’’ she wrote. ‘‘This is a disservice to these students as well as a disruption to the classes already in progress which they are entering.’’

The letter hit Coleman hard. She came to Mayall’s classroom after school and—briefly—broke down, blinking through tears and valiantly trying to stop her lip from trembling. Coleman was new at the job. She was doing her best. She couldn’t control the district or Green Dot. It was an impossible situation. ‘‘She was exhausted and overwhelmed, trying to do everything she could manage,’’ said Mayall, who didn’t blame Coleman. ‘‘Green Dot didn’t really have any idea of what they were getting into.’’

After the fact, Coleman was glad Mayall had taken action. ‘‘I’m more desperate for the help than I’m worried about the union thing,’’ she said.

In the end, there was no dramatic response from Green Dot, no sudden hiring spree or ban on oversized classes. The union met with Green Dot to talk about teachers who were over the limit; administrators met with the affected teachers and, eventually, made a handful of additional hires. Teachers with the impacted classrooms ‘‘agreed’’ to retain more than thirty-three students per class. Seniors with enough credits were pulled out of classes and scheduled into ‘‘service’’ positions in various offices around the school, filing papers or answering phones. But these changes were enough. As of February, just two teachers had resigned—far fewer than in previous years—and over 80 percent of teachers would sign up to return for a second year, compared to the past standard of about 50 percent under Los Angeles Unified.

Even those who weren’t directly affected—or who were deeply suspicious of teachers unions from past experiences—were glad to know that teachers’ perspectives were being communicated up the chain of command. ‘‘At least the teacher’s side was being aired,’’ said English teacher Sully.

Whether or not teachers at Locke paid much attention, Green Dot took the contract seriously, creating an invisible safety net under the hard work being done in the classroom. The contract didn’t intrude on school life very much, day to day, but when needed it was there, and proved to be sturdy both during the first year of the Locke turnaround as well as during future years, when growth and consolidation would create an even greater need for established structures.

Alexander Russo is an education writer and creator of two education blogs, “This Week In Education” and “District 299: The Chicago Schools Blog” (sponsored by the Chicago Tribune). During 2008-2009, Russo was a Spencer Education Journalism Fellow at Columbia University.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.