08/31/2012

In Albuquerque, solution-driven unionism in action

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AFT president Randi Weingarten has spent a lot of time talking about "solution-driven unionism" since she first unveiled the concept during the union's national convention in July. In Albuquerque, N.M., on Aug. 30, for the second stop of her back-to-school tour, Weingarten saw a great example of what that concept can mean in practice.

At Emerson Elementary School, Weingarten and other AFT leaders in New Mexico were among the first visitors to a school that began the year just two weeks earlier with a new principal, some new staff, a new focus on integrating the Common Core State Standards into the curriculum, and excited and enthusiastic staff and students. While the effort to turn around Emerson, a Title I preK-5 school with a mostly Hispanic and Native American student population, officially began with the start of this school year, it was the result of months of planning and collaboration among the Albuquerque Teachers Federation, the school district and outside researchers.

The AFT nationally is committed to finding solutions to improving schools that help not only the students but also the broader community, Weingarten said. "This is a concrete example of that theory in action," she added. "What you are doing here is helping kids in ways that really work."

The visitors, who included AFT New Mexico president Stephanie Ly, Albuquerque Teachers Federation president Ellen Bernstein and Albuquerque Educational Assistants Association president Kathy Chavez (who is an AFT vice president), toured a number of classrooms at the school. The difference that the Common Core is making for students was clearly on display in Clara Gonzalez-Espinosa's fifth-grade class, where the students were doing extended reading in books of their choice. For many of them, she said, it was the first time they've had a choice of what to read because bland textbooks and basal readers have been the norm.

When Weingarten asked the students what they wanted to do this school year, almost everyone who volunteered an answer said science. Amazingly, Gonzalez-Espinosa pointed out, this will be the first year that she has actually been able to include science in the curriculum because it had been narrowed so much to focus on reading and math. "I'm excited to work with the Common Core and with these students," she said.

Randi Weingarten in Albuquerque

That focus on the Common Core standards and how they will change what teachers do in the classroom came up again later in the day, when teachers and educational assistants gathered at the Albuquerque Teachers Federation office for a demonstration of Share My Lesson. Presentations on this new free AFT online resource for educators are part of some of Weingarten's back-to-school tour stops, including one the previous day in Ohio.

The Share My Lesson site, which includes more than 200,000 resources across grade levels and subject areas, has a section devoted to the Common Core. Share My Lesson, Weingarten told the educators, is another example of solution-driven unionism. It's a tool that helps teachers find the free, high-quality resources they are looking for to help them do the best job possible with their students. Heidi Glidden from the AFT's educational issues department gave a demonstration of the site, including walking the audience through how a second-grade teacher might find literacy materials for her students.

Weingarten's Albuquerque visit ended with a stop at a political rally and picnic in neighboring Rio Rancho, hosted by the Rio Rancho School Employees' Union, which is a merged AFT-NEA local. Despite the hot, cloudless weather, the crowd—most of them clad in AFT Obama-Biden T-shirts—gave an enthusiastic welcome to speakers, including Democratic leaders in the New Mexico Legislature as well as Michelle Lujan Grisham, the Democratic nominee for New Mexico congressional district 1. "I plan to make education and educators a top priority," she said. "You guys are heroes. Without you, we can't make a difference in this country."

Weingarten wrapped up the rally with a spirited call to "work like we've never worked before" in November to elect leaders who share our values. On one side, she said, the Obama-Biden ticket wants to "revive the middle class and restore prosperity for all," while honoring the contributions of labor and working people toward building this country. The Romney-Ryan ticket, she continued, stands with those who are already successful; but if you're not among the wealthy, you're on your own. It boils down to "a choice between someone who cares about regular folks versus a party that wants to tear them down." [Dan Gursky/photos by Rick Scibelli Photography/video by Matthew Jones]

August 31, 2012