Visibility and Community Engagement Are Part of a Powerful Plan
A rustic mountain ranch deep in the heart of central Idaho may seem like an unlikely location for the renaissance of a local education association, but the pristine wilderness of Wildhorse Creek Ranch did serve as the springboard to a new future for the Blaine County Education Association. Co-presidents Maritt Wolfrom and Trintje Van Slyke gathered at the ranch with other members of the BCEA, along with colleagues from the Jerome Education Association, in August of 2015, to develop their strategic plan and forge a new path forward for their local.
Although neither one grew up in Idaho, Wolfrom and Van Slyke have now both lived and worked in the Wood River Valley for more than a decade, and the two have shared oversight of the BCEA and its eight school buildings for the last five years. Despite experiencing some bumps in the road during the era of the Luna Laws, the BCEA has historically been a stable local association. A generally positive working relationship with the Blaine County School District, along with the economic and philosophical advantages that come from the prestigious Sun Valley resort and community, have helped the BCEA to ride out the recent recession and put their best foot forward on behalf of the area’s teachers and students.
When an NEA grant provided an opportunity to give their local association a booster shot, Wolfrom and Van Slyke jumped at the chance. Then came the retreat at Wildhorse Creek Ranch, where IEA staffers Sue Widgorski and Linda Jones helped the BCEA come up with a strategic plan. “The real key was to narrow it down and not bite off more than we could chew,” says Wolfrom.
After some reflection and discussion, the Blaine County Education Association came up with three primary goals for jump starting their local, improving education and bolstering community relations within the district.
- Increase visibility in the community
- Increase building/site specific leadership
- Increase member participation and engagement
A more significant presence online and in social media was a major step toward achieving the visibility goal. Wolfrom used a Weebly template to create a website and the group committed to regular use of the association Facebook page. They began posting information about BCEA events and local news on Facebook, along with sharing posts from the IEA and other local and regional groups. Money from the NEA grant was used to boost Facebook posts and create greater reach. Regular e-mails to members also were part of the increased commitment to communication. Designing a new logo that has been placed on everything from web sites to tee shirts has also helped the BCEA create and leverage their own brand.
Humanizing their members and re-framing the community’s perception about the BCEA was another big initiative. “Whenever we were mentioned in the local paper, we were tagged with a reference to ‘the Teachers Union’, which comes with some baggage and negativity,” Wolfrom says. So they tried to shine a spotlight on individual members to reinforce the idea that BCEA members are part of the community—not some ethereal, evil conglomerate intent on turning the county inside-out. Wolfrom herself became part of that effort when she was profiled in the March 16th edition of the Idaho Mountain Express as the “Woman of the Year”.
Working side-by-side with others in the community for the greater good was not a new phenomenon for the BCEA, but they geared up those efforts another notch and reinforced their participation in the public eye. “It wasn’t a difficult request because our members are so invested in the community and take a lot of pride in where they live and work,” says Wolfrom. Among the notable community service projects were:
- Adopting a stretch of highway 75 south of Hailey.
- Volunteering at the local food bank.
- Participating in the Bellevue Labor Day Parade.
- Helping out at the area animal shelter.
- Providing “Educator for a Day” opportunities for elected officials and other local leaders.
An emphasis on increasing professional development opportunities for members has included sessions on education law from IEA General Counsel Paul Stark and trainings on the Charlotte Danielson assessment from retired member Darlene Dyer. “The next step is looking at helping our members create their portfolios to reach the new Master Teacher level that is part of teacher compensation in the Career Ladder formula,” says Van Slyke.
The BCEA has also enjoyed success in several other areas.
- Increased engagement in the political process, with more members attending school board meetings and negotiating sessions.
- Building association leadership through a team-based approach. Designated as “The A-Team”, these groups of members spread organizing responsibilities around, rather than relying only on the building representative.
- Growing membership. The BCEA’s outreach efforts have led to increased membership, despite the loss of several members due to retirement in recent years.
Strong, determined leadership at the local level makes a big difference, and Wolfrom and Van Slyke have provided just that. Their ability to work together is a big part of their success. “Having two presidents allows us to share the workload, bounce around ideas and share the stress,” Wolfrom says. “Tryntje tends to temper my hotheadedness with her wisdom and calmness.”
Not willing to rest on their laurels, the Blaine County Education Association is planning another retreat this summer, once again at the bucolic Wildhorse Creek Ranch. In light of the success enjoyed by the BCEA and other locals, the IEA is expanding its plans to help targeted local associations. Contact your region director for ideas on how you can increase visibility, engagement and membership in your local.