Despite devastating budget cuts and the threat of layoffs, educators in two school districts on Long Island, N.Y., through collaboration and innovation, have persevered in continuing to address high-quality education and to advocate for their young charges. On Sept. 7, AFT president Randi Weingarten joined New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) president Richard Iannuzzi (who is an AFT vice president) as well as local union representatives to see firsthand the successes at four schools, and to meet with superintendents, principals and other administrators to share ideas and strategies for weathering the challenges facing school systems nationwide.
At a meet-and-greet session over coffee and bagels in Freeport, educators from the superintendent to local teachers and their union leadership started the tour by discussing the tremendous challenges facing the school district. Despite a $57.3 million reduction in state aid from 2008-2009 to 2011-12, by working together they were able to preserve all but one of 16 positions (eight teachers and eight PSRPs) threatened by budget cuts. "The fact that you are working together is the first step," Weingarten told the Long Island educators, adding that confidence in public schools soars when the community sees teachers and administrators working in tandem. "At the end of the day," she said, "this is about the kids."
Freeport Teachers Association president Stuart Napear described the district's situation as an "imperfect storm," with a series of circumstances creating "grave concern" for educators: low-wealth communities, large class sizes, loss of programs that engage students, and the threat of charter schools siphoning funds from public schools.
But with programs like NYSUT's Local Action Projects, designed to support community-oriented projects, and Innovation Initiatives, which helped launched a union-driven evaluation system, high-quality education has remained intact. "We've had great success working with the teachers association," superintendent Kishore Kuncham told Weingarten. "We've weathered the storm," he said, but added, "I'm not sure we can ride this storm forever."
Freeport High School and Archer Street School
The issues came to life in the classroom, as the AFT toured Freeport High School. In an 11th-grade ESOL class, students from China, the Dominican Republic, Guatemala and Honduras shared their ideas about how to improve their schools: increase athletic programs, provide healthier food choices and create opportunities for hands-on learning outside of school. In a social studies classroom, students shared their anxieties about college (too expensive) and advocated for keeping schools open ("because when they close schools down some kids stop going to school") and creating smaller classrooms. Weingarten promised the students she would take their concerns to President Obama—and other policymakers—and continue to work to meet their needs.
The visitors walked downstairs to the crisp discipline of the ROTC classroom, where the students of Major Moore, the teacher and retired Marine, displayed the precision of taking attendance, military-style, and visitors attempted to stand at attention and "drop like a rock" into their own seats, on command.
At Archer Street School, a K-4 elementary in Freeport, the visit included a trip to the school library, where second-graders learned about a new scanning system for checking out books. In another classroom, first-graders gathered for a lesson taught in Spanish, part of a dual language program that alternates a day of Spanish immersion with a day of English immersion. Weingarten joined in as the children sang a variation of the ABC song in Spanish. In the hallway, principal Paula Lein showed off a museum case full of historic objects contributed by staff, to celebrate their school's 100th birthday.
The visit concluded with gifts for Weingarten and Kuncham: framed prints of student art, with the words, "Let There Be Peace." Weingarten's comment was a favorite quote: "From your mouth to God's ear."
Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School and Barack Obama Elementary School
From Freeport, it was on to nearby Hempstead. For lunch, the tour joined Hempstead Public School District superintendent Patricia Garcia in her office, next to the Alverta B. Gray Schultz Middle School. Hempstead Classroom Teachers Association president Dawn Sherwood and other officers from her local, along with Weingarten, Iannuzzi and district administrators, discussed some of the tough challenges facing this school district, where funding has been reduced from $89.6 million in 2008-09 to $87.7 million in 2011-12, and layoffs are expected for 49 teachers and 40 support staff this academic year.
Working together is key. "If people don't collaborate and work together to solve our joint problems, particularly in this [economic] environment, nothing else will happen," said Weingarten. "It's not kumbaya," Iannuzzi added. "We are going to disagree, but we're going to stay focused on a goal, and we are going to work through it."
The NYSUT Innovation Initiative, a union-led effort to solicit and implement new ideas for education improvement and support, already has made a difference here. The initiative created a comprehensive new teacher development and evaluation system that measures students' learning and provides meaningful feedback so that teachers can improve. Garcia said the program has put Hempstead ahead of districts that did not participate.
In the classrooms, visitors looked over students' shoulders as they watched a rap-style safety video for chemistry, and watched students practice interviewing for videos with new camera/flip phones in the portables behind the school.
The next stop was the first school to be named for our current president. At Barack Obama Elementary School, students are proud of their accomplishments, and told Weingarten they want the president to know how much they love to be in school.
Rallying the members
Following the school tours, Weingarten and Iannuzzi dropped in on a meeting of building reps in the Hempstead Classroom Teachers Association offices, where members sat in a circle and bantered frankly about a host of issues facing the union: fighting the property tax cap that limits school funding, building community alliances, and trying new strategies to protect collective bargaining and strengthen the union's voice. "Part of what we have to try to figure out is how we keep the focus on the economy and how we keep the focus on quality education," Weingarten told the members. One way to do that? "We have to make common cause with the community." [Virginia Myers/photos by John R. Lewis]