Bargaining for Better Schools

One union works for meaningful small school reform

By Diana Porter

Illustrator: Melinda Beck

Illustration:Melinda Beck

Even after my first week, I knew something was different about Hughes Center, a collection of five small, urban academies where I became the program facilitator in 1994.

I saw teams using their daily team planning periods to compare course passing rates and in-school suspension rates. Team leaders conferred about best practices and the instructional leadership team discussed curriculum and student achievement.

I felt reinvigorated. My eight-year experience as the lead teacher for a small school-within-a-school had left me doubting high school reform was possible. I had worked with an enthusiastic and dedicated staff, who, like Sisyphus, daily pushed the boulder of high school reform up a mountain of red tape.

The Cincinnati Federation of Teachers (AFT local #1520) has worked hard to defy the stereotype of unions as obstacles to school reform. I was the collective bargaining chair when we negotiated our first collaborative contract after joint district/union training from the Harvard Negotiations Project in 1988. We negotiated a contract with a differentiated pay scale for lead teachers through a Career in Teaching Program. Lead teachers were identified through a rigorous evaluation process that looked at both their classroom instruction and their school and district leadership. Once lead teachers were identified, they could apply for lead teacher positions that opened every two years. A panel of four teachers working directly with this lead teacher and the building administrator interviewed candidates and chose the one that would work with them for two years. Because lead teachers had greater responsibility, attended many more meetings, and worked at least five days beyond the school year, they were paid $5,000 a year above their regular salaries. Team leaders, department heads, program facilitators, and peer evaluators were designated as lead teacher positions. Here is the language from the contract:

170. Professional Development

1. Career in Teaching Program

The CFT and the Board are both committed to improving the profession of teaching. A profession offers opportunities for professional growth, involvement in decision-making, communication and collaboration, and increased responsibilities and accountability. By implementing change in the organization of schools, teachers will have the opportunity to take on greater responsibilities which will bring with it greater status, higher salary, opportunities to collaborate, as well as leadership roles to improve instruction and student achievement. The parties also view a career ladder as a way to give incentives to attract and keep quality teachers in the profession. To this end, we have established the Career in Teaching Program.


This new contract also contained a provision that allowed neighborhood comprehensive high schools to apply to become a high school reform project affiliated with the Coalition of Essential Schools (CES). I was on the high school reform subcommittee with a high school principal and the two of us worked together on this proposal. Once the contract was settled, I became one of the first lead teachers in the district and transferred to Woodward High School in a predominately African-American low-income neighborhood.

In my second year as the lead teacher, the faculty voted to join CES. A school leadership team went through national training and the next fall, we launched the Essential Studies Program, a school-within-a-school. Teachers voluntarily transferred from the neighborhood school to this new program. A summer institute built professional development and team planning time into the school schedule. The Ohio State Department of Education awarded us a $125,000 “venture capital” grant and we also secured funding from private foundations. We formed interdisciplinary teams and randomly assigned students to these teams. An energized faculty poured ourselves into personalizing education and creating projects to actively engage students to stem the tide of ninth grade failure and dropouts.

I remember the Christopher Columbus project my ninth graders did in world history and English. The students held a press conference on the 500th anniversary of Columbus arrival to raise critical questions about our state’s celebration of this event. The energized students saw the power of community organizing and they developed skills like writing letters, writing press releases, and making follow-up calls to the media.

Despite successes like these, pressures like the implementation of high-stakes tests in ninth grade and budget woes began to take their toll. The state was in the process of defining state standards and each new academic year brought substantially revised standards. Teachers began to tire of the constant reinventing of projects to teach to the shifting state standards.

Because of budget problems, we had to eliminate counseling positions to reduce class sizes. Teams at our school had agreed to take over the scheduling of students since our team-based block schedule required little work to schedule and the teachers felt they knew the students better and could give them more support in post-secondary choices. The counselors fought this decision and got the district involved. (This whole drama can be seen in John Merrow’s PBS special “The Fifty Million Dollar Gamble” (

We did improve student attendance, course passage rates, and the grade-level promotion rate. And we started to send more graduates on to two- and four-year colleges. But Cincinnati’s lone high school reform project did not have the clout either to win exemptions to districtwide mandates or to change them. There were scheduling and discipline problems between the “coalition kids” and the neighborhood school students who did not get any of the benefits of the small school structure. The principal, who had been so supportive in starting the initiative, was suddenly promoted to superintendent for our district. The new principal appointed to Woodward wasn’t sure that this reform model was in the interest of the students in this school. Although the union contract had created this school, there was no language in the contract to provide a supportive structure or resources. Without supportive leadership, it didn’t take long for the boulder to start rolling downhill and I had to choose between staying and being crushed by it or accepting a transfer to another school.

Small School Reform: Take Two

With my experience in small schools reform, I was recruited by the teachers in the program to become the program facilitator of one of the five small, urban academies at Hughes Center. The population of the five schools that make up Hughes Center is 1,450 students. Ninety-six percent of the students are African American and 65 percent qualify for free or reduced-price lunch.

My new school, the High School for Teaching and Technology, serves 270 students and has a mission to “grow our own” teachers. It was created by the union, the district, and the University of Cincinnati College of Education. These organizations were responding to the shortage of teachers, especially African-American teachers. According to a 2003 National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future report, individuals of African-American, Hispanic and Latino, Asian, and Native American descent make up 14 percent of K–12 teachers, while 36 percent of students are from such backgrounds.

Shortly after my appointment, the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers negotiated a contract that included a process by which schools could become “team-based” schools. All five programs at Hughes voted to become team-based under the following contract provisions:

Section 145: Team Based Schools

2a. Team Composition

The team must consist of 3-5 teachers sharing a common group of students. Four teachers on a team is the preferred structure.

2b. Team Leaders

Each teaching team in a team-based school shall have a paid team leader ($6,000 if a lead teacher in the Career-in-Teaching program, $3,000 if not). The team leader’s duties include, but are not limited to, the following: serves as instructional leader of the team, represents the team on the ILT (site-based management council); conducts team meetings; mentors and coaches team members; submits team meeting minutes and quarterly reports to the principal; coordinates the analysis of student achievement data; facilitates the implementation of the Standards in Practice process; and facilitates team communication with parents.

4a. Team Rights and Responsibilities

A team shall be responsible for educating its students to help them meet or exceed the promotion standards for that level. The team shall determine instructional methods, consistent with the school’s adopted program focus, if any, and shall determine how to group and schedule students for instruction in the subjects covered by the team. The team shall determine disciplinary procedures consistent with the district’s Code of Conduct and the Local School Behavior Plan. Continuity in student-teacher relationships shall be a primary consideration.

We organized our schedule into an eight-period day with two daily preparation periods — a personal and a team preparation period. It became very important to build team time into the daily schedule because teams had just been given so many more responsibilities. The first year, we were given paid team training where we learned how to conduct efficient meetings, improve communications, and resolve conflicts.

Each team had a paid lead teacher as a team leader who proved to be very important to the success of teams. The team leaders were compensated for the time they gave up daily during their personal preparation period. They often sacrificed their preparation period to telephone calls, following up on paperwork, or meeting with parents, students, or teachers. Since lead teachers are compensated for this time, they can be held accountable for the work required beyond the traditional classroom responsibilities. I meet with my team leaders to analyze data such as attendance, course failure, or test passage rates. This helps us to constantly adjust and fine tune our planning and instruction.

The instructional leadership team (ILT) meets bi-weekly to talk about curriculum and instructional issues that concern all five programs in the school. The ILT is the group that oversees the team configuration and votes to approve any curriculum changes in the school. Each team is represented on the ILT by their team leader and the subject-area leaders. Other ILT members include parents, non-teaching staff, and administration. The union contract also included provisions for setting up the ILTs:

150. Instructional Leadership Team

1. a Role of the ILT

Instructional Leadership Team (ILTs) shall be established so that the principal, teachers, and other members may share leadership and make decisions in the following areas:

• To develop, review, and evaluate the instructional program

• To monitor and improve school operations and procedures that impact on instruction

• To plan and monitor training of staff

• To develop and monitor school budget

• To create and maintain a safe and orderly school environment

• To oversee the formation of teams, in team-based schools, within given parameters

Team Responsibilities

Our team-based structure allows us to keep students for two years so that we can know them and their parents well. In our school, there is no “office,” so the team is responsible to follow through with discipline issues in a timely manner. It also means that when teachers call parents, they can report on their academic achievement as well as their behavior issues.

The union contract created an in-school suspension option where individual teachers have the right to send disruptive students to an in-school suspension room for the remainder of the instruction period. We created a Saturday-morning school run by the principal and a teacher who is paid to work each Saturday, although teachers sometimes volunteer to help if a large number of students are assigned. This gave us another option for dealing with discipline-related problems before suspending students. Teams are given the responsibility of suspending students if all teachers agree. They take care of the paperwork and contact the parents.

We have continued to increase achievement and, in fact, made “ade-quate yearly progress” (AYP) under the No Child Left Behind act last year. Despite the fact that we’re in a period of transition to a new, more rigorous 10th grade state exit exam, we have been able to create some wonderful interdisciplinary projects. We have an American Idol project where students perform songs or raps about the causes of World War II, videotape them, and design CD covers and liner notes. Students are mastering standard deviation in math by studying the results of standardized testing and college admissions. Despite the changing state standards, many teachers have found ways to teach to the standards through creative projects.

Painful Choices

In order to reduce class sizes, our school took advantage of the student-based budgeting that a joint committee of teachers and administration had worked collaboratively to create. Through this process, we could be more flexible with staffing at the building level. Teams generally have 80 to 100 students and four teachers (plus a part- or full-time special educator to work with students with individualized education plans). At our school we traded in two assistant principals and three counselors to create a lead teacher position for each of the five schools and reduce class size. We also voluntarily reduced our foreign language offerings to only Spanish and then required two years for all students. We also cut back to the minimum art, music and physical education offerings.

Many of these reforms were painful, especially the minimizing of fine arts courses. Now, in year six of these reforms, the state of Ohio named us a “school of promise” because we met AYP this year in our school of more than 60 percent low-income and 94 percent African-American students. We are also seeing an increase in the number of students who go to two- and four-year colleges and who are interested in pursuing the career focus of the program.

In an urban district, any reform is tenuous at best. Our school is threatened with closing and we are constantly forced to be very creative with the budget to make ends meet. The program facilitators of each of the five schools only teach two periods instead of the usual six. To pay for this, we went from three assistant principals to one. Now, 10 years later, our principal is tired of covering every football game and is retiring and requesting more administrative help for the next principal.

With the protection of our union contract, I am sure that this current crisis will bring changes but will not compromise the team-based structure we have created here at Hughes. I don’t know how it will turn out, but I do know that the union contract helps us move the boulder of small school reform up the hill. And our team-based structure will help it from rolling backwards.

Diana Porter ( taught for 32 years in the Cincinnati Public Schools. For the last 11 years, she has worked as program facilitator of the High School for Teaching and Technology at Hughes Center. She has served on the executive board for the Cincinnati Federation of Teachers for 29 years.