The Chicago Teachers Union is embarking on a path that may be a first for a teachers union local: operating a graduate degree program.

The Jacqueline B. Vaughn Graduate School for Teacher Leadership, named for the union’s late, feisty president, is slated to open next January, enrolling 225 teachers.

The Vaughn graduate school will offer a two-year course of study that leads to a masters’ degree in teacher leadership. The only similar program run locally is at St. Xavier University.

CTU President Deborah Lynch says creating the Vaughn school is the first step towards creating a career ladder for Chicago teachers, which is one of her priorities.

Vaughn will be temporarily housed in space adjoining CTU headquarters at the Merchandise Mart; and classes will be taught in the evening by veteran CPS teachers and university education instructors.

The idea for the school was conceived in 1994, when Lynch was director of the CTU Quest Center, a professional development program for teachers.

A year later, the Illinois Board of Higher Education granted operating authority for the school; they did it on the day Lynch resigned her post to return to classroom teaching. The plan then lay dormant; reviving it was one of Lynch’s top priorities when she won office in last year’s election.

It may take another two years for the graduate school to secure full accreditation, she says. Until then, the union is looking to partner with another institution—talks are underway with the University of Illinois at Chicago—for a joint masters’ program. Tuition is estimated to run $9,100.

Quest Center Director Allen Bearden is on tap to become the school’s part-time president; Connee Fitch-Blank will resign her post as Quest assistant director to become the school’s dean.

Teacher leaders would mentor and support colleagues, steer curriculum development and take an active role in improving their schools, Lynch explains. And they would not have to leave the classroom, she adds. “Even good principals can’t possibly do all the leadership tasks in a school.”

The school district in Rochester, NY, offers such a model. Teachers there do not have to become principals to gain greater responsibilities in their schools, Lynch notes.

CTU’s graduate degree program in teacher leadership will help dispel the notion that school leadership is synonymous with principals, says Rochester Teachers Association President Adam Urbanski. “It will become a benchmark for progressive unionism.”

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