From Chicago to Philadelphia?

I was one of four members of the SLA Community who had the pleasure of presenting at this year’s Coalition of Essential Schools Fall Forum at The Met School in Providence, RI. I have more ideas swirling around in my head than can reasonably be summarized in this post, but I’m going to attempt a couple of them here.

First off, it was really eye-opening to visit another school that embodies many of the same principals as SLA. We didn’t have a chance to see classes in session, but just exploring the physical building gave us lots of clues about what’s going on and what we could steal. From what I explored, the schools rely more heavily on the advisory system than SLA, and have whole rooms devoted specifically to advisory groups, complete with their own names and cubby systems and tons of individualized support notes on the white boards. The place felt like home.

The sessions that really got me thinking, though, were all about Chicago.

I am a card-carrying member of the Philadelphia Federation of Teachers, and on the whole I’m grateful for the work that they do. However, I don’t feel particularly connected to my union. And I don’t think that’s my fault — they don’t work to connect teachers around Philadelphia, beyond the occasional rally. Though I appreciate their protecting my benefits, I also crave networking. What are the other people out there doing? What are their needs, their struggles, their skills and triumphs?

This is a part of what was so interesting about the story of the Caucus of Rank-and-File Educators, shared so eloquently by Xian Barrett at the conference.

Their movement, he said, started with an interested group of twelve people — folks who knew each other from the blogging world, or ran into each other at the annual conference hosted by Teaching For Social Justice, the progressive teacher organization in Chicago.

Over four years, they went from this seed of a group to nearly sweeping all elected positions in the Chicago Teachers Union. Their caucus also continues to organize and publicize as an organization independent of the CTU, and therefore free of some of the gag rules that are enforced around contract negotiations.

How did they do it?

First by listening, he said. Going to every possibly community meeting about educating, asking people what they needed, and acknowledging those needs.

(How did they find the time for this? By working a somewhat inhuman number of hours, including taking personal days and no-pay days to fit it all in.)

Then they found union members — we’re talking actual teachers — who were willing to run for the elected positions within the CTU. Virtually all of them running on the CORE slate were elected.

These folks recognized that they were disenfranchised from a massive behemoth of a system, and they took it over from the inside. Now, of course, they’re struggling with trying not to become the establishment they unseated. Still, they did it.

Could such a thing happen in Philadelphia?

I don’t know. But for the first time, I am seriously asking the question. I hope you will ask it with me.

Ed Note: If you’re in Philadelphia, you should definitely be at next Saturday’s Chicago Teachers Union Panel Discussion. Check it out on the Teacher Action Group website or RSVP via Facebook.

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