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Taking on Open Court, Teachers Win Reaffirmation of Professional Status

Susan Notes: This is good news about teachers who did more than complain about the imposition of a restrictive reading program.

By organizing a campaign to defend their rights as professionals, members of the Roseville Teachers Association have persuaded the school district to withdraw a restrictive, prescribed reading program.

They have been successful in getting the district to remove the requirement that teachers use the rigid Open Court reading program as their only resource. They also obtained a statement from the administration reaffirming the principle that the teacher is the most important element in a classroom.

As a result of the campaign, the chapter is even stronger than it was previously. "I think it showed what we can do when we pull together," says RTA President Sandi Roullier.

Although RTA has always had a strong chapter, Roullier says there has been an influx of new teachers as a result of the tremendous growth in student enrollment in the district.

"I think this really opened the eyes of the brand new teachers as to what RTA can do for them," she says. "Last year, we really had a morale problem, but it has improved this year. Everyone feels so much better."

The teachers' problems first started to surface at the beginning of the 2003 school year when the assistant superintendent of curriculum required teachers to fully implement the adoption of Open Court in grades K-5. Although promises were made that there wouldn't be excessive oversight by administrators, principals at the school sites were soon monitoring teachers in their classrooms to make sure the curriculum was being implemented.

"We couldn't understand it," says Donna Bengle, a second-grade teacher and reading specialist who helped organize the campaign. "Test scores were already high in our school district, and yet we were all being forced to use Open Court. In my class, I have kids who are struggling readers and I have kids who are working at a sixth-grade level, yet they were all forced to be on the same page at the same time. It didn't close the achievement gap; it only brought the top down."

At the same time, the district made it difficult for teachers to get together to discuss the changes. Committees that had been set up previously were disbanded. Teachers had more discussions about their plight while in line at the grocery store than they did in school. It was during one of these chance discussions at a Starbucks that a group of teachers decided to take the issue to CTA Consultant Mike Egan, who has since been appointed a charter school organizer for CTA. He suggested two possibilities for the group: either petition the board to become a charter school where teachers make curriculum decisions, or go the more traditional route of conducting a member survey to determine what teachers wanted.

Reasoning that a charter school petition would affect only one school, the group decided instead to formulate a survey that would allow teachers to express themselves on the matter.

Using James Cox's book Your Opinion, Please! How to Build the Best Questionnaires in the Field of Education, the group put together a survey to find out the opinions of educators. More than 60 percent of the teachers returned the survey, which is considered a phenomenal response rate.

When tallied, the survey showed strong teacher dissatisfaction within the district. Before the teachers had a chance to present their report to the school board, however, the district superintendent asked to meet with them to resolve their issues.

The superintendent not only agreed to the teacher's requests, but went further, issuing a statement reaffirming a teacher's right to use professional judgment about curriculum decisions that most benefit students.

In addition, late this summer, the teachers learned that the assistant superintendent had resigned her position. "We couldn't be happier," says Bengle.

There have been other positive changes as well. RTA regularly meets with the superintendent to help prevent problems from cropping up, and the tone of district meetings has become more positive. And the new assistant superintendent is someone many of the teachers regard as "awesome."

Roullier credits committee members for their work and their professionalism, and says the experience was a win for everyone, the association and the district.

Bengle, along with her husband, Steve Bengle, a third-grade teacher in the district, and Heidee Harvey, a first-grade teacher, conducted a presentation at the CTA Region 2 Leadership Conference on "Organizing to Defend Professional Practice." The Bengles became site reps to make sure that teachers are listened to at each school.

"We wanted our district back," says Donna Bengle. "And we got it."

— Dale Martin
California Educator


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