Garnering support for President Obama's jobs proposal is an AFT priority, and the national union's president, Randi Weingarten, visited schools in Yonkers, N.Y., and North Bergen, N.J., on Oct. 17 to highlight how Obama's plan would help schools and districts faced with horrific building conditions, severe overcrowding, or shortages of teachers and other essential staff.
Weingarten toured Gorton High School and Martin Luther King Jr. School in Yonkers, as well as North Bergen High School. At each stop, she promised that the AFT was going to do everything it could to help pass the jobs bill, which includes money for school staffing and modernization.
"It's not fair to keep asking you to do more with less," Weingarten said to a group of Yonkers leaders, including superintendent of schools Bernard Pierorazio, city council president Chuck Lesnick and Yonkers Federation of Teachers president Patricia Puleo.
During their tour of Gorton, Weingarten and the others witnessed a physical education class being held in an antiquated gym with a worn and chipped tile floor, and visited a makeshift basement classroom with no windows, peeling paint on the walls and a massive ventilation system looming right above the heads of students.
"We can hear the rats when they run" through the ventilation system, a student quipped.
Weingarten assured the Gorton students that she would make lawmakers in Washington, D.C., aware of their school's deplorable condition. "You deserve so much better than this," she told them. "Those senators who blocked the jobs bill need to be here to see" how this school looks.
At nearby Martin Luther King Jr. School, a preK-8 campus, Weingarten met with school principal Leslie Grant, who lamented the loss of the school's art, drama and music programs. While the student population in Yonkers has grown, budget cuts have forced the district to lay off more than 500 teachers in the past three years, explained Puleo.
Community involvement is essential to turning things around in Yonkers, said Gail Baxter, education chair for the Yonkers branch of the NAACP. "There has to be sustained indignation from the parent community and the community at large."
Underfunded and overcrowded
Built some 50 years ago for 1,800 students, North Bergen High School currently has a student population of close to 2,900 students—and that number is growing. The school has neither enough classrooms nor enough teachers for the students it needs to educate.
And, despite the best efforts of the school's staff and administrators, the sports fields, common areas such as the cafeteria, and other parts of the school reflect the strain being put on the overcrowded, aging building.
North Bergen Federation of Teachers president Elizabeth Lynch teaches at the high school. She noted that the cafeteria is too small and doesn't have air conditioning. "The cafeteria is so hot during the summer that it's inhumane," she said.
North Bergen is probably the kind of school President Obama has in mind when he says the nation must modernize schools so the nation's children can be adequately prepared for the 21st century. "We're really pushing for more visibility around issues like those you have here at North Bergen," Weingarten told Lynch, principal Paschal Tennaro and North Bergen superintendent of schools Robert Dandorph.
During the tour of the school, Steven Somick, the school district's business administrator, explained that the school system had earmarked $8 million to build a state-of-the-art media center and 20 additional classrooms at North Bergen High. In fact, architectural plans had been drafted, he said. However, the money set aside for the upgrades, which would have alleviated the school's severe overcrowding, was cut from the school's budget by New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie.
"The story that this school had gotten the resources to add classrooms and then Christie took it away needs to be told over and over again," Weingarten told a group of North Bergen High School teachers.
U.S. Rep. Steven Rothman (D-N.J.), who joined Weingarten for a press conference at the school, asked: "Will we really allow a small group [in Congress] to withhold the resources that our children need to succeed?"
The jobs bill would bring $500 million to New Jersey "that can be used to renovate our schools," and would provide "money to prevent layoffs of police, teachers and other public employees," he added.
Laurie Troiano, an English teacher at North Bergen, also urged passage of the jobs bill. She may have said it best when she told the press conference that an educated citizenry and job creation go hand in hand. "The money is not for us as teachers," she asserted. "It's for our children and the future of this country."
North Bergen Mayor Nicholas Sacco, who is also a New Jersey state senator, expressed his appreciation for the visit by Weingarten, who was joined at the school by AFT New Jersey president Donna Chiera. "This is the first time that anyone has come to North Bergen to help us," he said. "This is the first time any organization has come in to showcase us." [Roger Glass/photos by David Grossman/video by Brett Sherman and Matthew Jones]
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