The power of education shone brightly at the AFT's annual PSRP conference, April 20-22, from a pledge to place books in children's hands to the pursuit of adequate education funding.
Central to the conference was the AFT's commitment to help revive the struggling community in McDowell County, W.Va., which consistently ranks at or near the bottom in statewide measures of health, income and education.
McDowell is "an American story that deserves a new chapter," Jackee Long, president of the West Virginia School Service Personnel Association, told attendees, declaring that in America, everyone should have decent housing, healthcare and jobs, as well as an equal opportunity for an education. West Virginia native Bob Brown, executive director of WVSSPA, said the McDowell campaign has taken off like a rocket, with hundreds of volunteers stepping forward and thousands of dollars in contributions pouring in. "I'll tell you something," he said. "This is union work."
One piece of the Reconnecting McDowell initiative is the First Book program, which provides new, age-appropriate books to children in need. Lack of access to books remains one of the biggest barriers to literacy. To remove that barrier, First Book has provided more than 90 million books, either free or at minimal cost, to schools and education programs nationwide.
AFT members are helping lift the quality of their own schools through professional development, ranging from how bus drivers can handle bullying to how every PSRP can assist in raising academic standards. Many conference participants attended workshops on paraprofessional-teacher teams and the Common Core State Standards.
Still in their infancy, the standards will bring a more realistic approach to teaching and learning, bridging the gap between what students are expected to know and what they're tested on. The new standards will change how material is taught, so that kids will better comprehend what they're learning. For instance, the PSRPs watched a video demonstrating how students might spend up to a week analyzing a historic letter Martin Luther King Jr. wrote to his fellow clergymen from a jail cell in Birmingham, Ala.
The PSRPs expressed a strong desire for professional development in Common Core standards, right alongside teachers.
A new PSRP at the helm
During the opening session, AFT secretary-treasurer Lorretta Johnson, the division's role model as an educational success story, handed over the gavel as PSRP chair to Ruby Newbold (shown right), president of the Detroit Association of Educational Office Employees and an AFT vice president. Both women have made quality education and professional development the hallmarks of their work on behalf of support staff.
Johnson, presented with gifts and a cake, called the moment "bittersweet," noting that she will keep fighting for school workers as an AFT national officer. She observed that the work of the AFT PSRP division continues with a new generation of members coming to the conference and taking home what they have learned.
Newbold thanked the secretary-treasurer for her labor of more than 35 years. "You have taught us to respect the work we do," she said, promising Johnson that the PSRPs will stand behind her. All three top AFT officers—president Randi Weingarten, Johnson and executive vice president Francine Lawrence—came together in launching the professional issues conference in Washington, D.C., with a show of unity. "One of the strengths of our union is that we have great diversity and yet maintain great solidarity," Newbold said.
Realizing how vital it is to preserve and improve public education, the PSRPs attended political workshops, sported their new Obama T-shirts and listened attentively as Democratic National Committee executive director Patrick Gaspard outlined the Obama administration's successes and aspirations.
Again and again, the PSRPs heard how important their voices are in this year's elections.
In case there was any doubt left about AFT members' importance in the elections, Weingarten made it crystal clear during her keynote address. "We are the difference," she said, "between whether there will be a dream in America or not."
Laura Harper, a fierce defender of public education and PSRP chair of the Jefferson (La.) Federation of Teachers, won this year's Albert Shanker Pioneer Award. Harper received the award "for her willingness to speak out and speak up when confronting injustice," Newbold said. "If you are not doing right by our members, you will hear about it" from Harper.
In accepting the award, Harper cited her mentor, Mother Jones, who "used to say 'Pray for the dead and fight for the living.' I say pray for the school board and fight like hell for the PSRPs!" [Annette Licitra/photos by Michael Campbell]
April 27, 2012