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Posted By Jennifer Masutani, Monday, September 12, 2016
Updated: Saturday, September 10, 2016
  Cross-Boundary Leader

Shital C. Shah 
DC EPFP 08-09 

Shital C. Shah is the assistant director of educational issues at the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). In this role, she works across AFT departments to help examine and develop policy for and to support implementation of AFT’s community schools area of work around whole school reform and provides support and training to state and local affiliates around the community school strategy and extended learning time. Previously, Shah served as the manager of policy and partnerships at the Coalition for Community Schools at the Institute for Educational Leadership; a consultant at Innovation Network, Inc.; and the director of an East Harlem out-of-school time program with the New York Road Runners Foundation. She also was a Peace Corps volunteer in Honduras. Shah holds a master’s degree from the Milano School of International Affairs, Management, and Urban Policy at The New School, and a bachelor’s degree from George Washington University.

Community Schools and the AFT

At the AFT, I work with national partners and local affiliates to develop community schools policy at the local, state, and federal levels. Community schools has become a big focus of the AFT, especially since Randi Weingarten became president in 2008. She saw the community schools strategy as one that the union could utilize for education reform, and later she institutionalized community schools work within the AFT. My position was created as an opportunity to work at the local, state, and national levels with different stakeholders—from teachers and union leaders to districts and school boards and community partners to help bring labor management and community partners together to create structures that can support and grow community schools. It’s also a great opportunity to bring teacher voice into the conversation and process of developing community schools.

As a union, we are in a unique position in that we have the ability to engage our members across the country around community schools. Some things that makes us different than other organizations is that we have the power of organizing and advocacy to push policy, we can affect change in behavior at the local level, and union leadership at all levels can play a strong role in both of these. Many leaders are convening community coalitions with other groups to bring them and other folks who might not normally be a part of the education conversation into the fold.

Engaging families is another focus of our community schools work because parent and family involvement in education makes such a big difference for students, schools, and the community. We work to tie together the instructional component and family and community engagement component of academic success.

In the last year, we’ve been able to help our members work with community partners to create deeper instruction. Many educators do this through comprehensive project-based learning. An example might be bringing students into a community garden not just to show how vegetables grow but also using it as an opportunity for math lessons or instruction in other subject areas. The key piece to this is reminding educators that they aren’t the ones having to go out into the community and find partners, but it’s about building a strong relationship with community school resource coordinators, who can leverage existing and burgeoning relationships to support educators and instruction.

Cross-Boundary Collaboration and Education Policy

Working with federal and state policymakers and leaders can be challenging, but I think the key to effectively working with them is informing them of best practices. It’s important to start at the local level to connect the policy to educators on the ground, because showing local support for a policy and having educators share their stories about a policy is crucial at the statehouse. In fact, many state-level policy proposals are built on local practices.

The big gap in almost any policy is not having enough local voices making the case for it. I think the advantage for us at AFT is having educators provide that voice to policymakers, especially around the community schools strategy. It can be easy to forget that, in community school efforts, instruction is still a key component, and educators can provide valuable insight about the impact and changing conditions that come with community schools.

Cross-Boundary Leadership

One of the benefits of being part of a national organization is that we have to mirror what we ask local communities to do—collaborative across boundaries. This is a huge part of community schools work on the ground as well as at the state and federal levels. Our collective work involves different stakeholders across multiple systems, and the union recognizes that in order to be effective, there has to be a collaborative voice speaking for the community schools movement.

Leadership Lessons Learned

One challenge with community schools is that places need to figure out how to bring all partners, including local unions, to the table from the beginning so there is a complete vision. The main takeaway from this work is that a vision can’t be created in a silo and then have expectations that people will just buy into it. Everyone involved needs an authentic voice from the beginning.

EPFP Experience and Value

Before I became an EPFP Fellow, I was working at the Coalition for Community Schools and meeting with different partners around community schools. EPFP allowed me to connect with national organizations in a different way and on other issues like superintendent leadership and Title I funding formulas. It allowed me to see different layers of the organizations I was already working with in order to deepen my own work in community schools and get closer to the whole education field.

I think the biggest value of EPFP is the connections that you make during your Fellowship year. The DC cohort is a little different because many of us are connected through our work outside of EPFP, but the program is great because you get to know people at a deeper level. It’s also a great networking opportunity. In many of the state sites, I think the value is that you have practitioners at the school and district and state levels in one place—and those are all of the people you need to create policy and change. EPFP gives these people a place to see different perspectives to change and improve local and state policy.

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