Something seems amiss in all of the teacher and union bashing in the news these days. That talk about earning too much money, bloated benefits, not working hard enough, not caring about the kids. And then how the union protects us, especially the really bad ones. I was pleased to read Nicholas Kristof’s piece in a recent New York TimesPay Teachers More” (March 13, 2011). At least someone gets it!

In my early years in the public school system I was a union rep who watched a gay colleague be nearly rooted out of the school. This very successful teacher worked with some of the most difficult-to-reach students, but his sexual orientation made some administrators queasy.  Thank goodness a union existed to protect him.

On the non-union front, I am dismayed about low salaries or benefits of some colleagues in charter schools.  They lament not having the money that “Boston Public” has, which offers teachers a decent wage with decent benefits. I worry about systems with no unions. Even though I do agree with those that say that the unions must be more open to change.

Amid all of this I recently experienced a bright reality: A school in Worcester that is NOT a charter school, nor even a pilot school, and IS part of the teacher’s union.

The University Park Campus School (UPCS) tagline is “The school with Promise.” It certainly is!  A small neighborhood school of grades 7-12 with 17 full-time faculty and about 230 students from a high-poverty neighborhood. Here are a few more stats:

  • 74% receive free or reduced lunch;
  • 64% speak English as a second language;
  • 65% are students of color;
  • 95% go on to college;
  • Nearly all are first generation college attendees.

The school was founded in 1997 with 35 7th graders and graduated its first class in 2003. The retention in college (or college persistence) is 88%. This is incredibly impressive.

When I walked in the building along with other principal colleagues several weeks ago, my mind drifted back to the nursery rhyme, “The Old Woman in the Shoe.” The building is tiny. Open space is almost non-existent. Classrooms are squished on top of one another with small lobby areas on each floor. Yet, even with the lack of space, particularly in the tiny cafeteria, I also felt the sense of community and excitement about being a student, or a teacher, at

University Park. I never saw any negative behavior in the hallways or classrooms. Students and teachers were deeply invested in learning.

A UPCS Classroom
This may emanate from the shared understanding about the overarching framework and beliefs of the schools:
1. An untracked academic program prepares every student for college work
2. A school culture that won’t allow any student to fail
3. Organizational practices that support the academic program and school culture
So how did these play out during our visit?
Teachers do not own their rooms. They do their work in the back of someone else’s room. There is no teachers’ lounge or separate lunch room.  Teachers eat lunch with students. Veterans and beginning teachers learn together physically almost by osmosis. A clear open door policy exists to come in and out of classrooms.
Visuals all over the school show the importance of going to college. A senior checklist with each student’s name delineates college readiness steps. For example: Have you submitted your common app? Other non-common apps? Have you submitted your recs to your teachers? Have you done your FAFSA? Have you written your college essay? Supplementary essays? Guidance counselor report? SATs?  Senior class names line a grid with stars next to the places where students have completed a step – a great visual aid for both the guidance counselor and the students.

Students in upper grades all take courses at Clark University (a founding partner) as well as at other community colleges. All students take at least one college course before graduation.  Graduate students from Clark teach electives at the school and all students go back and forth to the Clark Campus for special events and even gym. The entire college process is demystified and going to college is an expectation.

Consider these classroom snapshots of our day and the messages we received:

A poetry slam featuring local Worcester poets as well as other artists from around the country. With virtually no arts at UCPS, this was a very special occasion. Students clearly enjoyed this exciting event. In an 11th grade physics class, all students focused on the tasks and the experiments. They worked well with one another and were very engaged in the projects.

In a senior sociology class, almost every student detailed the homework assignment –  describe their bedroom. Few talked about sharing a room with siblings. Many students talked openly about their emotional feelings towards their bedroom. I felt included in quite personal conversations where students had clearly established a deep trust in one another and their teacher. One student said, “My room is an introduction to me.” and then went on to describe why. His peers nodded sagely and supportively as he described the colors and the spatial arrangement of his furniture. Julie talked about how her room was the living room since there wasn’t a private place for her, and others listened quietly.

Math class students had just finished watching the movie “Pay it Forward,” as part of their unit on exponential functions. Even though this was a 9th grade class, students were deeply engaged at their tables working in pairs or trios. As the class ended the teacher reminded the students to communicate with one another on homework since the assignment was a group project. “They will call each other?” I asked. “They have to. It’s part of the assignment.” The teacher answered. “They all do their homework, almost 100% of the time. If they don’t we have an after school program to help them catch up.”

UPCS students were so eager to learn and contribute!

Later we met with a group of about ten 9th graders and asked what they liked about the school. To a person, each liked the high expectations. “Some people might say that this is the smart school, that we are brainiacs.” Dajon grinned at us and went on, “I don’t know about that. I do know that we all want to go to college and we want to do well.” Brittany explained that the school was like a family. Lily said she appreciated that the teachers were always there for her. Kalil agreed. “Teachers are so involved with kids here.” And Eljay echoed, “We are really comfortable with one another and everyone cares.” Jucinda explained that in her old school she never talked, “but here no one is afraid of being teased or anything like that.”  Caleb liked still seeing his middle school teachers. “Our teachers have lunch with us. We know our teachers’ expectations and how to do their work since we had some of them in middle school.”

I wondered if there were any things that the students didn’t like or would change.  The students readily acknowledged that it’s a small school. Kalil said that he’d like it to be a little bigger so that he could experience more of what larger high schools might offer. Many students wanted a bigger building or a gym, or more after school clubs.

Teachers explained later that the loss of their extended day funding eliminated many afterschool activities as well as their very successful parent university. With so many students being first-generation college attendees UCPC once did much more with family education. Now they are limited to an ice cream social at the beginning of the year and the more traditional parent council. Still, when we asked about family engagement, all students said that their parents were very involved in 7th and 8th grade and came to family conferences. Even now as older students, parents still know all their teachers. “We only have a few teachers here so our parents know them well from the beginning.”

As I drove back to Boston, I thought about the ingredients that make UPCS so successful:

1)      A clear mission and vision. This seems to travel from the principal down to the teachers radiating to the students and parents.  That vision includes an expectation that graduates will go on to college, and they will be supported in their efforts to get there. I didn’t feel any of the no excuses kind of talk that seems to permeate much of the charter school terrain. Rather than failure is not an option, the UPCS message is success is an option here through supporting one another.

2)      Strong professional learning community among teachers. Teachers share a common instructional framework that includes a commitment to collaborative group work, questioning, scaffolding of prior knowledge and classroom talk. Teachers talked about how their professional development focuses on their instructional framework. They also talked about the importance of living inside one another’s classrooms instead of a faculty lounge or office area.

3)       Small size enables safety and connection. Students and teachers know one another well (since 7th grade). Caring for one another is an important tenet of the school. That students make their teachers proud is of importance to everyone.

4)      Clear expectations about success and a positive school climate. Students begin in an August Summer Academy. Here they actually take their first academic courses where they learn the expectations of the school and their teachers. This investment seems to pay off in terms of behavior and focus through the rest of the year.

5)      The power of partnerships. UCPS has strong and long-standing partnerships with Clark University and Jobs for the Future (JFF). Each organization either provides support in terms of human resources, facilities or funding. Both Clark and JFF proudly acclaim the success of the partnership. UCPS has not tried to develop multiple partnerships. They have gone deep with a few.

I reflected on how articulate those 9th graders were, and I don’t think they were hand-picked to be shown off to us. I realized how important those first two years of inculcation into school life and school behavior are. At our school we notice the difference once students are 11th graders. We say, “they finally get BAA.” That is why we believe it’s so important to start in middle school. Waiting until the 9th grade creates too much of a game of catch up.

Most impressive, perhaps, were the questions from students as we were ready to leave:

What motivated you to go into education? What do you like about your schools? What would you change?” Each of us answered in our own way, but the common response to what motivated us to go into education was, “Students like you!”

Thank you UPCS students and staff for reminding us once again how unionized district public schools can function at such a high level. The film crew of Waiting for Superman missed a great opportunity at your school.