Jews back Brookline teachers’ struggle

By Brett M. Rhyne
Advocate staff

Molly Schulman of the Jewish Labor Committee 
PHOTO: BRETT M. RHYNE Molly Schulman of the Jewish Labor Committee PHOTO: BRETT M. RHYNE BROOKLINE – The Brookline School Committee faced tough comments from a roomful of frustrated and angry teachers, parents and Jewish activists at its meeting June 1.

At issue was the status of the town’s teachers, paraprofessionals and other members of the Brookline Educators Union, who have been working without a contract since September 2015.

Shelly Stevens, a speech pathologist at Brookline High School and a past president of Temple Hillel B’nai Torah in West Roxbury, said she is “disheartened” by the stalemated negotiations between the town and the union.

“Negotiations have been very challenging,” said the 28- year veteran of Brookline schools. “The school committee is completely ignoring what is at the core of being an educator. As teachers, we shouldn’t have our time taken up with data entry – we should have more time with the kids, and to prepare our lessons.”

Teachers, parents and Jewish activists at the school committee meeting 
PHOTO: BRETT M. RHYNE Teachers, parents and Jewish activists at the school committee meeting PHOTO: BRETT M. RHYNE “Teachers should be respected,” Stevens said, echoing a theme the union has been articulating for many months, with increasing ferocity.

Prior to the committee meeting, 70 union members and their supporters protested outside Brookline Town Hall, singing Aretha Franklin’s “Respect,” carrying signs reading, “We respect and trust our teachers” and cheering speeches by BEU President Jessica Wender-Shubow and others.

“We are no longer just the teachers of Brookline,” declared Wender-Shubow, who is Jewish. “We are the parents of Brookline, and voters of Brookline, and that’s an important alliance.”

Present at the rally and meeting was Molly Schulman, a worker at the Jewish Labor Committee.

“The Jewish Labor Committee is all about building coalitions,” Schulman said. “We want to get involved wherever workers are not getting the justice they deserve, the respect and support they deserve.”

“My Jewish values have drawn me to labor work,” Schulman added. “Tzedakah – justice – is linked to labor struggles.”

Stevens said the Brookline teachers’ struggle “fits” with her Jewish values.

“Social justice is a very important part of my work,” she said. “Because my students struggle with learning and communication, it’s important that we treat people the right way, and not have bureaucracy.”

Stevens’ description could apply equally to the struggle between the teachers union and the Brookline Committee.

“It’s a difference in philosophy,” she said. “We disagree on what’s good for the kids. Testing is only a small part of what we do as teachers. A much bigger piece is how we work with kids and parents.”

The teachers’ last full-length contract with the town expired in August 2014. At that time, the school committee asked the union to accept a one-year deal so it could focus on getting passed last spring’s $7.67 million override, which the union agreed to.

The override passed, and even though the teachers’ contract expired in August 2015, the school committee has refused to negotiate in good faith, according to Wender-Shubow.

The school committee insists teachers spend more time performing quantitative data-collection tasks like standardized testing, while the teachers want to focus on qualitative work like classroom and preparation time.

According to Joe Connolly, acting superintendent, the state mandates students take MCAS exams in grades three through eight; all other standardized tests – including literacy, math, science, English language arts and social studies, which students take variously from grades K through eight – are given at the discretion of the district.

Furthermore, at a meeting with parents at the Heath School in April, board member Rebecca Stone admitted the district does not yet know what to do with all the data it is collecting.

The board’s emphasis on gauging students through standardized test scores, instead of teachers’ insights, does not fit well with Stevens’ Jewish values.

“It’s about trusting people,” Stevens said. “Treating people like a mensch.”


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