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Teachers' alliance seeks end to micromanagement

LAWRENCEVILLE - A newly formed teachers' alliance group in Gwinnett County is calling for an end to micromanagement within the school system, the group's executive director says.

The Teachers' Alliance of Gwinnett, a grass-roots organization, launched Jan. 1. The group would like to work with school officials to improve working conditions within Gwinnett County Public Schools, but the organization is not considered a union, said Rand L. Bissell, the alliance's director and a social studies teacher at Peachtree Ridge High School.

School officials, however, do not recognize the new group, because established groups are already representing teachers. Furthermore, school officials say they will refuse to work with the group.

"The system values its teachers and already has various processes in place to allow for teachers to provide input and engage in the work of the system; therefore, we don't see the need for this group," Sloan Roach, the school system's spokeswoman, said in an e-mail.

School board member Carol Boyce said teachers are already welcome to contact anyone in the school system or on the school board at any time if they have concerns.

"We value our teachers extremely highly," Boyce said. "I have tremendous respect for all teachers. They have a very, very difficult job, and the public does not realize how difficult a teacher's job is. They handle our children just beautifully."

Boyce said she did not know why any teachers would feel as if their interests were not represented.

Robert McClure, a school board member, said having a formal meeting with the teachers' alliance is "putting the cart ahead of the horse," but he welcomes anyone who has suggestions on how to improve student achievement.

McClure said he is always willing to listen to ideas, but he may not always agree with them.

"Just because someone doesn't agree with your opinion doesn't mean they're not listening," McClure said. "That may be part of the problem (that led to the formation of the alliance)."

Bissell said he was "not even remotely surprised and not even terribly disappointed" to learn that the school system is ignoring the organization.

"We anticipated that county's position would be to ignore us at first," Bissell said. "We're going to move incrementally ... (and) we're going to build a coalition and put more and more pressure on them until they're willing to talk to us."

The Society of the White Rose

Borrowing the name "White Rose" from a nonviolent resistance group in Germany that ran a leaflet campaign calling for active opposition to the Nazis, the 17-member leadership group of the teachers' alliance calls itself "The Society of the White Rose," Bissell said.

As told in the book "Sophie Scholl and the White Rose" by Jud Newborn and Annette Dumbach, the members of the White Rose were captured, tried and executed by the Gestapo.

"Of course, we hope we don't end up that way," Bissell said.

McClure said that name compares the school system, which is run with the help of community input and board members who are elected by people who came to the polls on election day, to a totalitarian regime, and he disagrees with that characterization.

The school system chose not to comment on the characterization.

Members of the Society of the White Rose have contributed content to a Web journal, or blog, that accuses the leadership of Gwinnett County Public Schools of wrongdoing. School officials and school board members, however, have said the anonymity of this blog, found online at gcps.blogspot.com, make the accusations meritless.

The alliance wants to be involved in the training of assistant principals who are enrolled in the school system's newly launched Quality-Plus Leader Academy, which focuses on teaching the skills and knowledge a new principal would need, Bissell said.

The group would also like to see an end to "autonomy" in the school system, and the alliance wants to see "sight-based management" within the local schools, Bissell said. In addition, the alliance wants the school system to stop using a practice known as Total Quality Management, which Bissell said standardizes the way students are taught.

Roach, who neither confirmed nor denied the system's use of the principles of Total Quality Management, said the school system focuses on "continuous improvement."

"That is something that is expected of us ... and who wouldn't want to improve?" Roach wrote in an e-mail. "We use data and quality tools as part of our improvement efforts. For example, we benchmark against other systems, we use cross-functional action teams to address system issues/concerns, and we provide tools to teachers and leaders so that they can better analyze the student data to better meet students' instructional needs."

McClure said he was "puzzled" by many of the statements of the teachers' alliance and their characterizations of the school system.

Teachers have the ability to be creative while teaching the curriculum, McClure said. The district's curriculum, called Academic Knowledge and Skills, was developed using input from thousands of educators and community members, he said. While teachers must follow the AKS, the way they do so is up to each individual teacher, he said.

"Flexibility is not (just) a nice idea but a critical thing," McClure said.

Some of the alliance's beliefs are illustrated in book co-authored a few years ago by Joseph and Jo Blase, a married couple who are both University of Georgia professors of educational leadership and administration.

Bissell said he suggests school system officials read the book, titled "Breaking the Silence: Overcoming the Problem of Principals' Mistreatment of Teachers."

As an outsider to the school system, book author and professor Joseph Blase said he does not know if a problem exists within the Gwinnett County school system. But if the school system leaders were to ask for help, Blase said he and his wife would be willing to work with the school district to determine if there is a problem and, if one exists, provide the framework for a solution to the problem.

"The deal maker or the deal breaker (in the success of the alliance) will be the number of teachers willing to step forward," Blase said.

Soliciting members

The Teachers' Alliance of Gwinnett is inviting certified active teachers, retired teachers, substitute and student teachers, support staff, and parents and community members to become members. Membership dues are $45 per year, and membership information will be kept confidential, Bissell said.

Bissell said the membership drive is going "pretty well." Information packets are being mailed out to 102 potential members, and "dozens" of people have responded, he said.

The group wants to have representation at every school within the system, Bissell said. But recognized teachers' groups, such as the Teachers Advisory Council, already have representation within each school, Roach said.

Bissell said the current representation is not enough. Many Gwinnett County school system employees fear retribution from school system leaders if they speak out, Bissell said.

Boyce said the idea of the school system taking retribution against any employee "just floors" her.

"I can't envision that at all," she said.

Roach said she does not know of any time when retribution has been taken against any employee.

She added, "Retribution has never been taken against any employee who's asked questions or had questions."