July 4, 2007

In School Takeover, Newark Union Tries to Prove It’s Part of the Solution

NEWARK, June 28 — When teachers are removed from their schools here, their first phone call is often to the powerful Newark Teachers Union. But now the union is telling as many as a dozen teachers at the troubled Newton Street School that they have to leave because they do not fit in with a plan to improve the school.

“It was probably the hardest thing that I’ve had to do,” said Joseph Del Grosso, the longtime union president, who helped push through raises for teachers this spring during a state budget crisis, and went to jail for nearly three months in 1971 for taking part in a teachers’ strike.

The 5,000-member teachers’ union, the largest in New Jersey, is part of a takeover team at Newton, one of the city’s worst-performing public schools. For the past six years, it has failed to demonstrate “adequate yearly progress” on state achievement tests, the standard required by the federal No Child Left Behind law.

In September, union officials will join representatives from the school, the district and Seton Hall University on the school’s governing committee, overseeing daily operations at Newton. The school has 487 students in prekindergarten through eighth grade, most of them black and poor.

The union, which has a $3.5 million annual budget, has already spent $100,000 on teacher training and a retreat, and has set aside another $100,000 this year for professional development and to help pay for staff, supplies and field trips for the students at Newton. The union and Seton Hall are also leading a campaign to raise $250,000 from business and community leaders to create a school garden and a playground.

“With their help, we really want to make this a model school,” said Charles P. Mitchel, associate dean of the College of Education and Human Services at Seton Hall, who praised the union for using its resources to help students directly.

More teachers’ unions nationally are experimenting with direct operations of schools. In New York City, the United Federation of Teachers has established two charter schools in East New York, Brooklyn, since 2005, and it announced on Thursday that it was working with a charter school operator based in Los Angeles, Green Dot Public Schools, to run additional charter schools.

Teachers’ unions in Chicago, Boston, Baltimore, Miami and Minneapolis have also started running schools jointly with their local public school districts in the past few years, according to the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s second-largest teachers’ union.

In Newark, the collaboration has drawn renewed scrutiny to a teachers’ union that has clashed with Mayor Cory A. Booker over his support of school vouchers to help offset private school tuition. During last year’s mayoral election, the union backed Mr. Booker’s rival, State Senator Ronald L. Rice, giving away two and a half tons of boxed rice to voters as a symbol of support for the candidate.

More recently, the union has been criticized by the mayor and local businesses for spending more than $50,000 since January on bus and train ads and a half-dozen billboards, that read “Help Wanted: Stop the Killings in Newark Now!” The message draws attention to what is arguably Mr. Booker’s biggest vulnerability: the city’s persistently high homicide rate. The ads are intended to get people’s attention, Mr. Del Grosso said, and to start a dialogue to promote change before violence spills into the schools. He has refused to take down the billboards, and paid $12,000 more in June to renew them through the summer.

Rick Berman, the executive director of the Center for Union Facts, a nonprofit watchdog group that is often critical of unions, called the Newton project “a distraction” for a union that he says has helped perpetuate bad schools by protecting incompetent teachers from being fired. Since March, the center has spent $400,000 on its own advertising campaign in Newark claiming the union is, for example, “protecting bad teachers, discouraging good teachers, failing our kids.” The Web site for the center says it is supported by foundations, businesses, union members and the general public.

“The core issue we’re concerned with is not being addressed by this sideshow,” Mr. Berman said. “We’re still stuck with this entrenched bureaucracy protecting teachers who ought to be doing something else with their lives other than turning out kids who can’t read their own diploma.”

Mr. Del Grosso, an elementary school teacher who became union president in 1995, dismissed such criticisms. He has previously compared Mr. Berman to a fly, prompting Mr. Berman to send him a red plastic fly swatter, which Mr. Del Grosso now keeps in his office.

As both a teacher and a union president, Mr. Del Grosso said he had an insight into the “systemic problems in education.” One, he said, is a lack of discipline among students because so many teachers are reluctant to intervene when faced with the threat of potential abuse allegations and lawsuits from parents.

At the Newton Street School, Mr. Del Grosso has told teachers to expect to supervise more detention periods for misbehaving students, and, if necessary, to work with them on Saturdays. Teachers who are unwilling to do so will be moved to another school because they do not fit in with the plan for what is being called the “new Newton,” he said.

The school also plans to have teachers specialize in certain subjects, like math or social studies, and may move out some teachers who lack such specialties, Mr. Del Grosso said.

Willie Thomas, Newton’s principal, said the union’s involvement was critical to the overhaul of the school, which has a staff of 79, including 33 teachers. In the past, he said, he had little control over which teachers came to his school, or which ones left, decisions governed largely by union contracts and policies. “Once you have the blessing of the teachers’ union, you’re able to do a lot of things to make change,” he said. “We’re all accountable. You can’t just blame the principal.”

Tracey Kuhn, the school psychologist, said that some teachers were apprehensive about the changes, but that others welcomed them. “The union is a powerful presence, and it’s not going away,” she said. “So why not utilize that in a positive way?”

Annette Alston, a fifth-grade teacher at Newton who is moving to another school in the fall at her own request, said critics were too focused on Newton’s negatives, like the test scores. In 2006, 41 percent of the school’s sixth graders passed the state reading test, and 26 percent passed the math test, compared with 75 percent and 70.8 percent statewide.

“It’s frustrating when you know you’re putting your heart and soul into it, and you’re not seeing the results you want,” Ms. Alston said. “I say, you know what? Let’s see if someone else can do it better, and if they can, that’s good.”

For the union, the Newton school is a chance to prove to its doubters that it can deliver more than just raises for teachers and attention-grabbing billboards. “If it works, we might have a chance of not only helping all the schools in Newark, but also in other urban areas,” Mr. Del Grosso said. “I’d love to hear someone say one day when I’m in Chicago, ‘We’re using the Newark model.’ Right now, I think the talent we have is dwarfed by all the problems.”