Spotlight on Locals: Owen-Withee Education Association

WEAC Vice President Peggy Wirtz-Olsen presents Deb Smith, President of the Owen-Withee Education Association (OWEA), with the WEAC Strong Local Affiliate Certificate as members gather in support. Owen-Withee Education Association members (pictured from left to right): Gayle Baehr, Mary Meyer, Jeffer Scheuer, Ryan Gutsch, Jona Hatlestad, Mary Miami, Julie Plautz, Chad Eichstadt, Jodi Rahn, Pete Devine, Julie Kodl, Russ Weiler, Marilyn Jaskot, Denice Poetzl, and Sara Koller.

By Peggy Wirtz-Olsen, WEAC Vice President

According to teacher Russ Weiler, the strength of the Owen-Withee Education Association comes down to the focus on “students first and advocacy that puts students at the center of what we do.” “In the Owen-Withee Education Association,” Russ told me, “we have a lot of home-grown teachers who are involved in our community. We see our students in school and out of school, and we are always working to keep our schools and our community strong for our students.”   

Jodi Rahn, fifth-grade teacher, said strong communication is what makes the local so effective. Jodi said, “It’s easy for the membership and our leaders to connect with one another because we have leaders who are accessible to members as a whole. We run face-to-face meetings regularly, and we have building groups comprised of members and non-members where we work to discuss big ideas of what’s happening in the district.”  

When I asked Russ about a success story, he said, “The Owen-Withee Education Association is a wall-to-wall unit with members from the teacher ranks and the education support professionals ranks. I’m proud to have our ESP members with us in our local and that they have continued to re-certify, seeing the value in our union.” When I asked about membership numbers, Russ said, “We are around 60% membership for teachers and education support professionals. We’d like to reach the 65-70% membership threshold, and we keep working toward that.”  

“Our rapport with the school board has been another success story. Through our meet-and-confer efforts, we have seen movement on issues that matter to our colleagues and our students. Not everything that we discuss happens immediately, but through these conversations, we’ve been able to improve aspects of our school over time which really matter,” according to Russ.  

As far as successes, Jodi cited the association’s advocacy for compensation for hours beyond the regular school day. “We have been working to re-align payment scales for extracurricular activities, coaching and advising to remain competitive with nearby districts. We’ve also worked to fairly compensate educators for working summer school to continue to offer an excellent quality for our students and families. This was well-received by staff and really a win-win for all involved.”

Jodi offered this advice to other locals across Wisconsin: “Keep the lines of communication open with your members and make sure that you are honest and clear with them. Part of our success is that we have built a trusting environment. Also, listening is an under-rated skill. Leaders need to listen first and hear their members out, and then do their best to address their needs.”  

Russ said, “It only takes one person to get some important work happening in your local, then, you can recruit two, then four, through building connections with your colleagues. Locals need to lean on leaders for help like asking WEAC leadership, Regional leadership, and even nearby locals for advice and mentorship. We have been so fortunate to have strong leaders nearby in Loyal and Neillsville who have mentored us. I am very grateful to be a part of our union family.”

Read all of Peggy’s ‘Spotlight On Locals’ columns at

Legislative Update: Republicans strip Evers’ budget of key items

The Joint Finance Committee Thursday killed a plan for $1.4 billion in federal funding that would have helped fund schools, roads and healthcare. The party-line vote to deny full Medicaid expansion was followed by a vote on a huge package of recommended budget provisions that would have increased special education funding and teacher quality measures, plus require transparency and accountability for taxpayer-funded private schools. 


“Wisconsin educators and parents have turned out in droves to be clear about our No. 1 priority – our students,” said WEAC President Ron Martin. “Our dedication is strong – we will continue to advocate in the best interest of our students for equitable funding for public schools.”

See the interactive map on what Medicaid expansion would mean to your county

Legislative updates:

  • The Senate and Assembly will be in session May 15. The Assembly will act on a series of bills including AB-022, which would require driver education instruction to include information on spotting and reporting human trafficking.
  • Mental health. Governor Tony Evers will proclaim Friday, May 10, Children’s Mental Health Awareness Day.
  • The Legislative Audit Bureauhas released a new audit of the UW System. (Full Report, Highlights)

Bills we’re watching:
For a list of all the bills in the Assembly Ed Committee, click here.
For a roundup of all the bills we’re watching, with analysis, click here.

  • Minority Teacher Loan Program AB-051. The Assembly Colleges and Universities Committee has approved this bill.

Bills Circulating for Co-Sponsorship

  • Prohibiting the Investment Board from making investments in firearms companies (LRB-3060/1). While not currently investing directly in the firearm industry, the State of Wisconsin Investment Board (SWIB) has in the past been a shareholder. Prior to May of 2018, Wisconsin was just one of eleven states that continued to invest in the firearms industry. According to the filing from the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission covering state’s holdings as of 12/31/17, SWIB held 400,000 shares, or $5.1 million worth, of American Outdoor Brands Corp. stock (formerly known as Smith & Wesson). 
  • Wisconsin Reading Corps (LRB-2754 Memo). Funding for Wisconsin Reading Corps. Republican legislators are circulating this bill, even though Governor Tony Evers’ proposed budget eliminates former Governor Scott Walker’s “Read to Lead” program (read more here) and funds the Wisconsin Reading Corps at $700,000 a year. 
  • Teacher Appreciation Week (LRB-3201/1). While this is just circulating now – it calls on Wisconsin to recognize this week and the important work of educators.

Greendale’s Erin McCarthy is Wisconsin’s 2020 Middle School Teacher of the Year

From the Department of Public Instruction

In a surprise ceremony at her school Thursday, Erin McCarthy of Milwaukee, an eighth grade social studies teacher at Greendale Middle School who is a member of WEAC Region 7, was named the 2020 Middle School Teacher of the Year.

State Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor made the announcement during an all-school assembly. As part of the Teacher of the Year honor, McCarthy will receive $3,000 from the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation.

“Every day, teachers work to help students gain confidence, skills, and knowledge so they can contribute successfully to our world,” said State Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor. “It’s such a pleasure to meet with educators who represent the best of this tremendous calling.”

Herb Kohl, philanthropist, businessman, and co-sponsor of the Wisconsin Teacher of the Year program through his educational foundation, said he supports the program because “I want to help teachers pursue their unrealized goals for their classroom, their school, or their professional development.”

Erin McCarthy strives to spark every child’s curiosity about history, along with their sense of agency in the present, so that they leave her class enthusiastic not only to explore the world, but to improve it.

“Since my daughters started your class,” one parent wrote, “they are eager to discuss all that they are learning and aspire to learn…. They are working harder than ever to prove themselves to be respectful and responsible young people.”

McCarthy considers it her mission “to connect students to their place in history so they take action to impact their local and global community.” She finds she is able to spark curiosity and motivate reluctant learners by connecting them to diverse figures, especially those whose voices have been left out of history. McCarthy has developed a curriculum for writing these voices back into the narrative. At the end of the year, students perform an exercise of rewriting a chapter from their own textbook with a goal of making the story more complete. This project has successfully engaged students who were otherwise reluctant to learn.

McCarthy labors to ensure every student is included in her classroom’s community. “I’ve shifted the focus in my classroom to valuing the experience of each student and not teaching to the ‘average,'” she explained. “The work is exhausting but yields the greatest rewards.” She will, for example, take extra time to find the right story from history to engage a struggling reader. She includes visual, musical, and tactile experiences in her classroom so a diverse range of students can learn effectively. In addition, McCarthy embarked on a multi-year project to ensure students in special education can fully participate in her class’s National History Day project.

It was McCarthy who originally brought National History Day to the school. Students pick a historical topic of their choice and learn to manage complex projects comprising research, collaboration, developing an argument, and sharing outside the classroom. Gradually, over four years of collaboration between McCarthy and special educators, Greendale’s National History Day project became fully inclusive of students with disabilities.

“Our students with significant cognitive and learning challenges found their path to success,” McCarthy said. She told of a moment when “Elizabeth” (not the student’s real name) presented about the historical figure named Ruby Bridges. “As Elizabeth shared the story of a little African-American girl who spent an entire year alone in a classroom with just one teacher because of the fear of integration it was a poignant moment. Elizabeth’s education experience was similar to Ruby Bridges because at her previous school the special education model used was to isolate Elizabeth in a classroom by herself. Preparing her documentary provided Elizabeth opportunities to read, research, and connect to history.”

McCarthy is a leader in engaging students in self-directed research, known as “inquiry-based learning.” Educators nationwide asked to learn about her “Four I’s of Inquiry” model for fueling students’ curiosity. The approach shows versatility; her class even used it to respond to a “crisis of unkindness” at school. Inspired by historical examples yet working with current data, students developed plans for improving their school culture, presented them to administration, and formed a “Fix It to Fight It Club.”

Another way McCarthy connects students to history — inviting family histories into the curriculum — also helps families connect to the school. One mother thanked McCarthy after students interviewed family members about the 2001 terrorist attacks. “Being from a military family, September 11 was a life changing day for us … Thank you for providing this teachable and talkable moment.”

Musing on the world of education, McCarthy would like to see more focus on making the community an extension of the classroom, for career development and civic participation. She’s excited about the “whole child” movement, which emphasizes education for social, emotional, and other goals, in addition to academic assessment scores. In McCarthy’s classroom, skills like working hard and pushing one’s self get equal weight as growth in one’s knowledge and academic abilities.

In addition to classroom responsibilities, McCarthy serves on teams for diversity and equity in her school district; she has helped trained teachers to provide students with disabilities with opportunities to grow and succeed. McCarthy is a member of the board of directors of the League of Women Voters of Milwaukee County, and has participated in numerous professional development opportunities in her field throughout the country. She holds a bachelor’s degree in history from Roosevelt University, Chicago, and a master’s in public history from Loyola University, Chicago.

Read about all the 2020 Wisconsin Teachers of the Year.

MTEA member Chad Sperzel-Wuchterl is state’s 2020 High School Teacher of the Year

From the Department of Public Instruction

In a surprise ceremony Wednesday, Chad Sperzel-Wuchterl of Milwaukee, an art teacher at Reagan High School in Milwaukee Public Schools and a member of WEAC and the Milwaukee Teachers’ Education Association (MTEA), was named Wisconsin’s 2020 High School Teacher of the Year. 

State Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor made the announcement during an all-school assembly. As part of the Teacher of the Year honor, Sperzel-Wuchterl will receive $3,000 from the Herb Kohl Educational Foundation. 

“Every day, teachers work to help students gain confidence, skills, and knowledge so they can contribute successfully to our world,” said State Superintendent Carolyn Stanford Taylor. “It’s such a pleasure to meet with educators who represent the best of this tremendous calling.” 

Herb Kohl, philanthropist, businessman, and co-sponsor of the Wisconsin Teacher of the Year program through his educational foundation, said he supports the program because “I want to help teachers pursue their unrealized goals for their classroom, their school, or their professional development.” 

Sperzel-Wuchterl calls education “a vibrant, ongoing, lifelong process that interweaves the individual within a greater community.” His students’ artwork has been displayed throughout that greater community, not only in the school but also in university campus art galleries, the Wisconsin Capitol, the Milwaukee Art Museum, and revolving displays in Milwaukee’s Historic Third Ward. 

Sperzel-Wuchterl infuses college experiences throughout the curriculum by collaborating with professors from the Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design and the Minneapolis College of Art Design to provide lessons, workshops, and even professional critiques of student work. For students, an added benefit of working with professors on critiques and revision is learning about financial support for college. “Last year alone, $3.5 million was offered to 41 of my seniors as scholarships were put forth to draw in talented artists to multiple universities,” Sperzel-Wuchterl says. Students also make an annual visit to the University of Wisconsin–Stevens Point, where they participate in art workshops and learn about college options and scholarships from admissions staff. 

Working against what he calls the “’starving artist’ misconception,” Sperzel-Wuchterl invites parents to attend the campus visits to learn about college affordability, scholarships, and the wide array of careers available for students with art degrees. 

Another hallmark of Sperzel-Wuchterl’s philosophy is his belief in the intrinsic motivation to learn. “My experience has been that the more I empower students, the more excited they become in the learning process. I think this approach is essential as it lays the groundwork for independent learning which is expected at the college level and also paves the way for life-long learning.” 

A major tenet of his teaching practice includes a focus on closing the achievement gap. Sperzel- Wuchterl embeds literacy within his visual arts classes and uses ACT data to better understand his students’ literacy-related strengths and areas in need of improvement. He is then able to tailor literacy-infused art lessons to support students reading about and analyzing art and art theory, describing their artistic processes, explaining their work to professors and other professional artists, listening to critiques, and writing their reflections. Students also develop valuable collaboration skills in many creative projects and work with diverse media to develop existing talents and build new skills. 

Students embrace a global mindset. “Our student population includes 31 different cultures, some of whom are immigrants, refugees, or first-generation Americans,” Sperzel-Wuchterl notes. “Every culture has a unique perspective to share with the world at large.” A partnership with artists in residence and the international project, Inside Out, resulted in portraits of the school’s culturally diverse students and staff appearing on the exterior of Reagan High School. Sperzel-Wuchterl also features, in his classroom and around the school, artworks by marginalized people. 

Even while working tirelessly to widen students’ experiences and opportunities, Sperzel-Wuchterl’s belief in education as a lifelong process remains at the center of his own development. In his professional learning, he says he has witnessed an increasing “openness, adaptability, and flexibility” in education; he dreams of facilitating even more collaboration, to “knock down the rigid silos … separating truly gifted educators from each other and limiting their professional development.” 

Sperzel-Wuchterl began teaching at Reagan High School, which offers an International Baccalaureate program, in 2004. He holds a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in visual arts from Cardinal Stritch University. 

Read about all the 2020 Wisconsin Teachers of the Year.

Wisconsin has three winners of NEA Human and Civil Rights Awards

NEA has announced three Wisconsin winners of this year’s prestigious NEA Human and Civil Rights Awards. The Wisconsin winners are:

  • Bayfield educators and WEAC members Rick and Lorie Erickson.
  • Former State Senator Tim Cullen of Janesville.
  • GSAFE, a Madison-based advocacy organization devoted to creating safe educational environments for LGBTQ individuals.

They will be among 13 winners nationally honored at the annual NEA Human and Civil Rights Awards program July 3 in Houston, held during the NEA Representative Assembly.

Following are descriptions of the Wisconsin winners:

Rick and Lorie Erickson

Leo Reano Memorial Award

Veteran Bayfield, Wisconsin, educators Rick & Lorie Erickson have enriched the lives of children in the Native community they’ve become an integral part of.

In the district they serve, seventy-five percent of the student population is of the Anishinaabe Nation, indigenous to the Great Lakes region. As such, Rick and Lorie have developed a profound knowledge, respect and appreciation of the culture’s past and present, working diligently toward the goal of fostering an environment where Native youth can celebrate their identity for generations to come.

Working in concert with the Bayfield school system and the Red Cliff Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, Rick and Lorie have advocated for Native traditions and heritage to be incorporated into the curriculum. Rick and Lorie not only understand how vital it is for these children to express themselves, but that it’s equally important for those outside the culture to learn about those around them, and to advance understanding and appreciation.

Nourishing their bodies goes hand in hand with healing the soul; recognizing that much of the economic disparity stems from decades of historical trauma, they view their educational philosophy through the lens of cultural sensitivity. Their holistic approach has empowered and instilled a sense of pride in thousands of young people.

Rick and Lorie’s efforts to embed themselves in the community are always on display: both have taken courses in the Anishinaabemowin language. Lorie’s Early Childhood Special Education classrooms are consistently decorated with artwork that beautifully represents Anishinaabe life, and she creates activities for the children that include maple syruping, beading, and the rich tradition of storytelling, key to passing on lore, legacy, and history.

The Ericksons’ efforts have been recognized locally: Rick was awarded the 2003 Excellence in Science Education Award by the Wisconsin Society of Science Teachers, and was named the 2014 Wisconsin High School Teacher of the Year. Lorie’s forward-thinking concept of interfacing with tribal elders to guarantee culturally appropriate and effective programs for Native youth, garnered her recognition from the Wisconsin Indian Education Association.

Together, Rick and Lorie Erickson continue to make a better life for young people of all backgrounds in their community, so that no one ever forgets, to paraphrase the classic lyric, that “this land was made for you and me”.

Tim Cullen

NEA President’s Award

Senator Tim Cullen has been a champion of education for over 40 years. His body of work creating policy at the state and local level has continued to ensure that both students and teachers win at every level within the Wisconsin Public School System.

Initially, Senator Cullen wanted to be a high school social studies teacher, but once he started working for former Congressman Les Aspen, he found himself drawn to politics. A graduate of the University of Wisconsin–Whitewater, Senator Cullen was elected to the Wisconsin Senate in 1974, representing the 15th district. Combining his love for education and politics, as a state senator, Cullen served on the education committee and was Majority Leader 1981, 1983 and1985. A strong advocate for public schools, Senator Cullen was awarded The Friend of Education Award in 1983 from the Wisconsin Education Association Council, for the passage of a collective bargaining law.

Cullen would hold the Senate seat until 1987. Republican Governor Tommy Thompson appointed Cullen to head the Wisconsin Department of Health and Family Services where he served for one year before leaving public service for the private sector, and becoming the vice-president for Blue Cross Blue Shield of Wisconsin.

While working in the private sector Cullen continued his support and advocacy for public schools by serving on the Janesville School board, the same district where the Senator graduated high school.

In 2007, Senator Cullen, concerned with the lack of educators of color in the Janesville School District, met with then-Superintendent Karen Schulte to learn more about the ratio of students of color to teachers of color. The report showed students of color made up 14% of Janesville’s student population; however, only 1% of the 800+ teachers in the district identified as people of color. Senator Cullen quickly took action in developing the “Janesville Minority Teacher Scholarship” (JMTS). The proposal would provide a multi-year renewable college scholarship to a student of color for up to $5,000 per year for tuition, books, and fees to students of the Janesville Schools. In return, the student must pursue a degree in education, obtain a Wisconsin State Teacher Certification, and then apply for a position with the School District of Janesville when they have completed their degree.

Since its inception in 2008, The Janesville Minority Teacher Scholarship has had six graduates who are working in the Janesville Schools with a total of 17 years of experience among them. Four more students are currently taking advantage of the scholarship, with one recipient expected to graduate in the Spring of 2019.

Senator Cullen’s commitment to diversity in the classroom, his dedication to quality public education and his lifetime of public service have been instrumental in shaping the Wisconsin Public School system.


Virginia Uribe Award for Creative Leadership in Human Rights

From its start in 1991 as a volunteer-based grassroots organization operating out of private homes, under the name Gays and Lesbians Against Discrimination in Education (GLADE), GSAFE has successfully added “gender identity/expression” language to non-discrimination policies in the state of Wisconsin. The organization switched its focus from programs in South Central Wisconsin to serving the entire state, connecting with over 200 Gay-Straight Alliance (GSA) networks across the states. GSAFE has aimed to work with Wisconsin students, educators, community members, and elected officials to create safe educational environments where LGBTQ individuals can learn and gain the confidence to become successful.

GSAFE ensures that students at hundreds of schools have access to reliable programs and spaces that increase feelings of belonging and safety. This organization has developed and provided programs that have helped other students learn to respect diversity and refrain from abusive behaviors such as bullying and stereotyping. This student club network works with numerous school districts and various professional education organizations every year in order to provide educators of all grade levels the tools to navigate the sensitivities of identity and sexual orientation in the day to day classroom setting and within their school communities.

More recently, GSAFE launched Foundations of Leadership (FOL), an innovative class for advanced learners in the area of leadership. FOL enhances the education of LGBTQ students, particularly students of color, whose experiences are at the center of the class. The course strives to reorient the community’s understanding of who is considered talented and gifted and lifts up the leadership of LGBTQ youth of color who are underrepresented and often absent from advanced learners courses. The project has expanded in unique ways to include providing one-on-one instruction for youth experiencing suspension and/or incarceration and has piloted classes inside the restrictive confines of the Dane County Juvenile Detention Center. FOL is an essential project particularly in the state of Wisconsin and the city of Madison, which has one of the country’s highest rates of school push out and incarceration of youth of color, particularly African-American youth.

GSAFE advocates for including milestones in LGBTQ history as part of public school curriculum, from the persecution of homosexuals in Nazi Germany, to the Stonewall Uprising of 1969. Because of their advocacy and dedication, over half of Wisconsin school districts have gender-inclusive policies. In 2010,GSAFE heralded the first Lieutenant Governor’s Conference on LGBTQ Youth in Wisconsin and is planning their inaugural LGBTQA Students of Color Summit in Madison. GSAFE has continued to help districts pass and implement inclusive policy, and has continued to collaborate with statewide partners. GSAFE has become a “go-to” organization for the education and political community alike for creating safe and supportive environments for LGBTQ youth.

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