07/13/2011

Working with the Community Makes All of Us Stronger

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Engaging with parents, faith leaders, community organizations and others is an increasingly important part of the work of AFT affiliates and their members. These partnerships are critical to defending public education and public services, and ensuring that kids have what they need to be successful in school and in life.

Community engagement panel 

This bridge building was highlighted during the July 13 closing session of the TEACH conference, where a panel consisting of a parent from Orange County, Fla.; a faith leader from Dallas; an elected official from New Mexico; and a union president from St. Paul, Minn., shared their experiences working with other stakeholders on behalf of public schools and the children they serve.

Three years ago, concern about the threat of massive state cuts in education funding prompted Kathleen Oropeza to join together with two other Orange County, Fla., moms to found Fund Education Now. "We decided that if we were going to preserve the best of American public education, we had to be engaged," Oropeza said.

Using Fund Education Now as a springboard, the women mobilized other county parents and, working with educators and their unions, helped defeat legislation that would have crippled funding for public schools and limited the ability of educators to have a voice in how schools are run and students are educated.

Parents and school staff can be a powerful force when they work together, Oropeza told the audience. "The families in your school can be your biggest advocates. You just have to start reaching out to them."

Friendship West Baptist Church in Dallas wanted to be directly involved in serving its community and kids. So the church adopted a nearby high school and worked with teachers, parents, administrators and area social services agencies to give students access to mental and physical health services. "We feel that it's our obligation to go beyond the walls of the church and show how we can make our community a better place," Danielle Ayers, the church's minister of social justice, told attendees at the TEACH conference luncheon.

In his role as auditor for the state of New Mexico, Hector Balderas has supported educators, public schools and students in variety of ways, including pushing for transparency in school district budgets. "It's important that we hold school systems accountable," said Balderas, who urged AFT members to join with community organizations and community members in asking "tough questions" of administrators and elected leaders in order to ensure transparency.

The St. Paul Federation of Teachers, led by president Mary Cathryn Ricker, worked closely with community groups and the city's government agencies to secure a Promise Neighborhood grant from the federal government. Money from the grant will make it possible for some St. Paul schools to offer students and the surrounding community a variety of social and health services.

Ricker credited the union's partnership with the mayor's office for making the grant a reality: "The mayor and I decided that we were going to do this and that we were going to succeed as partners."

The union-community partnerships featured during the closing session were just four of the many that have sprung up in school districts across the country in recent years. Many of these collaborative efforts have been developed in response to the community engagement initiative launched by the AFT and championed by the national union's top officers.

"Although we're strong when we stand together as union members, we're exponentially stronger when we connect with the community," said AFT president Randi Weingarten, who moderated the panel discussion. [Roger Glass/photo by Michael Campbell]

July 13, 2011