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Mulgrew proposes radical approach to reform

Announces partnerships to provide community services in struggling schools

UFT President Michael Mulgrew offers new ways to combat chronic absenteeism and reform education with teachers’ support.

Speaking before an audience of 1,800 members, elected and school officials, and advocates at the annual Spring Conference on May 8, UFT President Michael Mulgrew called for a radically different, multifaceted approach to educational reform and proposed a “community schools program” that would provide medical and social services to students and families as a model of how to help struggling schools and communities.

Calling it a way to “lead by example,” Mulgrew spoke of the newly formed partnership between the UFT, Harlem Children’s Zone, the Children’s Aid Society, Good Shepherd Services, CUNY, the Coalition for Educational Justice and others to “identify the obstacles that our most challenged schools face and design a support system geared toward success.”

Together, the groups have applied for a $30 million federal grant to combat the chronic absenteeism that plagues the nine lowest-achieving schools in the city.

“I was surprised to learn that 90,000 elementary school children were chronically absent each year,” Mulgrew said, adding that this means they missed at least one month of school per year. “We went into the community and found common ground. We said, ‘That is shameful, we cannot allow that to happen,’” he said, describing how the partnership got off the ground.

In introducing Mulgrew, UFT Vice President Aminda Gentile said that he “has been president for almost a year, and what a year it’s been — he took the reins in the midst of a budget and educational crisis.”

Mulgrew expressed staunch opposition to the governor’s and mayor’s proposed budget cuts, which he said would be “catastrophic to the school system.” He reminded the group that it took decades to recover the last time that schools were cut this deeply and that “a generation of promising teachers was lost forever. We cannot and we must not let that happen again,” he said.

He called for his fellow educators to commit to the union’s “For Our Kids” campaign to fight the cuts and protect schools and children.

Beyond that, Mulgrew also asked the educators to become leaders in the debate on how to improve schools. Right now, he said, education works like this:

“Step one: Give the students a test. Step two: If the students don’t do well, blame the teachers and close the school. Step three: Open a new school. Rinse. Repeat.”

He said it was time for change. “We need to stop this madness,” he said. “We need to approach how our schools are managed and supported in the same way that a teacher approaches a classroom.”

Drawing on their shared experience in the classroom, he asked, “How many times have we had what we thought was the perfect lesson, but right in the middle of the lesson realized it wasn’t working? We don’t continue to deliver it. We use our skills and change it to get students engaged. That’s how we need to manage our schools,” he said.

Elaborating, he said change means encouraging collaboration, not competition, between teachers and between schools, and paying attention to the factors that impair learning in students’ lives outside the classroom.

“And to identify these obstacles — to say them out loud — is not an excuse,” he said. “It is merely the first step in working to overcome [them].”

Among the changes that need to be made, Mulgrew pointed to the teacher evaluation system.

“Let’s face it, folks, the evaluation system is based upon how your administrator feels about you this year,” he said. “It really isn’t working very well. At the same time, there are those who would propose that the evaluation system be based solely upon how a student performs on a single day of the year, on a single test. And that doesn’t work either. What we need is an evaluation system that helps us develop our skills throughout our entire career.”

Mulgrew ended his half-hour address, which was interrupted with applause some 40 times, with a call and response that got the audience energized. “Who are we?” he asked three times in describing the UFT’s role in protecting the community and the children. Each time the response from the crowd was a full-throated “UFT!”

With that, he sent the educators in the audience on their way, ready to do battle with the challenges they face every day and continue their impassioned advocacy for their profession, their students, their communities, their schools and the resources they need.

Schools Chancellor Joel Klein also touched on the current economic crisis when he addressed the group. “We need Albany to engage because we need to make decisions for the fall,” he said. “I know I will be there and I know Mike [Mulgrew] and the UFT will be there to get every single dollar from Albany and D.C. ... I think we can find ways to work together.”

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