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UTLA’s Caputo-Pearl: ‘Our goal is to win a good contract’

Vanessa Romo | August 6, 2014

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Alex Caputo-Pearl photoWith school about to open for 2014-2015, Alex Caputo-Pearl embarks on his first year as president of United Teachers Los Angeles (UTLA). He couldn’t have found a busier time to begin his first term, with negotiations underway for a new collective bargaining contract, a curriculum transition to Common Core and a host of other issues facing his 30,000-member union.

LA School Report had a chat with him today to get his thoughts on the union and the issues ahead as school doors open. Here’s what he had to say:

Question: LA Unified Superintendent John Deasy has characterized your statements of a potential strike as “breathtakingly irresponsible.” What is your response?

Answer: What is actually breathtaking is the conditions in our schools. We’ve got many schools without nurses, without librarians, arts or music programs. We’ve got some of the highest student to counselor ratios and highest class sizes in the country. What’s breathtaking is that the conditions of students and by extension educators face everyday in schools. That’s what we should be talking about when we’re using dramatic words like “breathtaking.”

Further, we are still waiting on an actual narrative and numeric description about how the base expenditure money that increased because the district received so much more money was spent. We’ve been waiting for months for a line-by-line description of where that increase was spent, and we still haven’t received it.  To expect a snappy agreement without process would be ridiculous.

Q: So, do you expect this to be a long and protracted process? Is a strike inevitable?

A: Do we want a strike? Hell, no! But do we know that we need to build up our capacity to deal with the kind of intransigence that we’re seeing. Yes, and  part of preparing for struggle is building up our capacity and part of building our capacity is building the capacity of a strike.

Q: Assuming you get a fair contract for teachers, what’s your next big priority for teachers this year?

A: Our goal is to win a good contract and to win good board policies for students and for members. And I think contracts, by definition, are temporary compromises on a bunch of issues, so I think the next step would be to continue to move the ball forward around the (union’s) “Schools LA Students Deserve” program, be it class size, school improvement, and educator control over professional development.

Q: We know teacher jails are a problem for you. How do other major urban districts deal with problem teachers?

 A: I have a 10-year-old son and a 7-year-old daughter who go to LAUSD schools, and if there is an educator or any school staff against whom there are credible allegations around sexual misconduct, they need a place to go that is not the school site. I’ve always been clear about that. What has to stop, is using the pulling out of teacher jail in much more indiscriminate and inconsistent ways that hurt kids and hurt student programs. But right now the system is such that the district isn’t following its own policy.

There are clear policy memos that outline the kind of allegations that should lead to someone being removed from a school, and they are very clear about timelines for investigations so you don’t have people sitting for years and leaving schools to deal with a vacancy. The district is breaking those rules.

Q: So if the district were to follow its own rules things would be OK? Or do the district’s policies still need to be modified? 

A: It would be a huge first step to have the district follow its own policies.

Q: Even with recognizing that poverty, neighborhood security and family support influence a student’s learning capabilities, how much responsibility should teachers have in the equation?

A: Teachers have enormous responsibility every day, and they got into education because they wanted to make a difference. That’s part of the job. What we have to do is find a balance between being involved in a movement to improve conditions for young people that include dealing with poverty, dealing with jobs programs, dealing with recreation space, all things that young people need.

We have to find a way to be involved in those kinds of movements but at the same time be able to contribute to young people’s development in schools, and the best way to do that is to involve educators in the building of school improvement programs.  And most educators would jump at that if they’re given a real opportunity to contribute to shaping a school improvement program and then actually implementing it.

The problem has been that there have been top-down metrics that people don’t feel they were a part of, that they don’t feel like they were consulted or that their expertise has been respected. And it’s that approach has pushed people down rather than lifted them up.

Q: Was that your experience teaching and leading the social justice program at Crenshaw High School?

A: Yes. In the case of Crenshaw we had years of organizing that went into building relationships with communities, and national foundations. And then through the blood sweat and tears of educators built a program that that ultimately was destroyed by the superintendent. He essentially just blew it up.

Q: How could teachers improve their public image, convincing average citizens that they are of greater value?

A: I draw from my own experience: 22 years teaching in south LA. The way that we, at Crenshaw, were able to shift some of the perceptions of the schools and of educators was to open up and work with parents on specific things. Work with them on building up our small learning communities so that they actually felt like they had a role doing that. I think a lot of it is letting people in to the day-to-day work of what educators do and helping expose the public to success stories but also day-to-day struggles in a really honest and forthright way. We’ve got to do that on a larger scale.

The second side of that coin is that we have to expose a lot of the big money interests that are specifically trying to shape public opinion against teachers’ unions because they see teachers’ unions as being in their way.

Q: Why is student enrollment in the district declining year after year?

A: A bunch of different factors are involved in that. Obviously there are changing demographics; people are moving away from LA ,but also I think charter schools are a big part of that. But there’s no question that we’ve got to improve LAUSD schools and get out there in the community and involve LAUSD parents. Not just by saying, ‘Hey, your child should come to our school,’ but involve them in really creating programs at schools.

One of the tragic underlines in the story of declining enrollment is that as the overall enrollment has declined, it has not declined proportionately to sectors of students. So, for example, as enrollment has declined, the enrollment of special-education students has increased. The proportion of foster care youth and the number of students who struggle with chronic tardiness has increased, because many charter schools, not all but many, are recruiting certain sectors of students who are higher performing or have a more institutional supportive home. That ends up being the Catch-22 of LAUSD’s efforts: to build a real school improvement strategy because it becomes more challenging as you have greater concentrations of higher needs students. But it doesn’t mean you stop trying.

Q: How much progress have you made in your efforts to unionize charter school teachers?

A: We’ve had some very important victories, including Ivy Academy, which has unionized and won their first contracts. What’s exciting about this moment is that we want charter school teachers engaged in the “Schools LA Students Deserve” campaign. We want them to come to the table and say this is a vision that expresses our desires as well, and give us input and insights. It’s a huge opportunity for a broad campaign like that to unite educators across LAUSD.

Q: Inasmuch as the Vergara court decision found that two years is too short to make an informed decision on a new teacher for tenure, what do you think is the right amount of time?

A: What’s needed is a system that involves educators in teacher support, development and evaluation. A system that invests in strategies that have been known to work, that expands programs, like the Peer Assistance and Review Program, which we already have in the district. And we need better training for administrators to support newer teachers. if you actually do those four things, you will address, much more systematically, the problem of supporting new teachers, and the bigger problem of having so many teachers drop out within the first few years. Those should be our top priorities. Not a lawsuit funded by big money to say that the union rules are the problem.

Q: In two recent reports, the National Council on Teacher Quality has put a large blame for rookie teacher ineffectiveness on college and university education schools. How much do you hold those schools responsible for the problems young teachers encounter?

A: I came through the teaching program at California State University Dominguez Hills and it was a good program but in no way did it prepare me, and I don’t think it could have prepared me for everything I would have to deal with in the classroom. The reason I made it through my first three years was because I had that foundation together with the fact that, out of dumb luck, I happened to be next to the classroom of someone named Cleopatra Duncan, a 35-year teacher and icon in the black community. She basically walked me through my first three years.

It’s a mistake to isolate the university programs from mentor teacher programs, which are critical, doesn’t serve anyone. We’ve got integrate them more.

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