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Working Together to Create Better Schools

EVERY VOICE COUNTS. That's the mantra at a series of town hall-style meetings co-sponsored by AFT locals and their community partners in cities across the country. And, it will be the overlying principle of a report on those meetings, amplifying the voices of myriad stakeholders working to improve education—from individual students to members of the NAACP, parent-led advocacy groups and educators.

Participants in Chicago town hall

Community members listen during a town hall meeting in Chicago.

Photo: Simone Bonde

The meetings bring together essential stakeholders around issues that are most important to their particular community, strenghthening everyone's ability to address these issues together. The town hall participants, who are enthusiastically embracing their new alliance with labor, include locally based neighborhood alliances, social justice advocates, social service providers and education scholars.

One of the primary goals of the meetings is to help shape the local and national education discourse with the most authentic resource available: the voices of parents, teachers and students.

For example, at a Chicago Teachers Union-sponsored Education Summit in December, 25 years of mayoral control inspired a workshop focused on fighting for an elected school board. The overall event, which drew nearly 400 teachers, unionists, parents, students, neighborhood activists and policymakers, also covered school closings, charter schools, wraparound services, "test mania" and other locally relevant issues.

The AFT's ability to share a national perspective and strategies helps lift up local groups, said Albany Park Neighborhood Council's Raul Botello, who ran the Chicago event's youth organizing workshops. "We hope that this is the beginning of a movement to really strengthen that network of folks who are pushing an agenda that's equitable and just."

In St. Paul, Minn., two parent-teacher-community book clubs and a series of listening sessions have explored teaching, equity, testing culture, class size, technology and enrichment, all with a focus on shifting the paradigm to put parents' voices at the center of education reform.

Members of the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, which has sponsored the sessions, are so committed to including parent voices that they intend to embed the issues in their contract where possible.

Town Hall Meeting in Minnesota

Town hall meeting in St. Paul, Minn.

Photo: Janet Hostetter

Defining its contract as a teaching and learning document, says Mary Cathryn Ricker, president of the St. Paul Federation of Teachers, is a major step. "You have heard that a teacher's working conditions are a student's learning conditions," she says. "But unless we have contract language that actually acknowledges that, then it's not the teaching and learning document that it could be."

At meetings, Ricker, an AFT vice president, has found much common ground with parents. "There is so much agreement between parents and teachers about what our students need," she says, it's just a matter of finding "the smartest way to work together to guarantee that for students."

Sharing ideas, addressing problems

The Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network co-sponsored a town hall in Pittsburgh for about 200 people in November.

"People need to know their voice is important," said parent Lenelle Reid, who helped facilitate discussions about parent and teacher priorities there. "That makes a huge difference."

In Houston, town hall participants tackled school closings.

"When you close down a school in a community, you close down a community," said Reginald Lillie, president of the Houston NAACP. To prevent that, the community must command the attention of legislators—with voters. "It's going to take multiple agencies," noted Lillie, who has invited AFT representatives to attend his education committee meetings. "It affects all of us: the whole city, the whole state, the whole country. Everybody has a stake in this."

New Orleans Town Hall Meeting

High school student Myron Miller at a town hall meeting in New Orleans.

Photo: Nijme Rinaldi Nun

School closings are an issue for New Orleans high school senior Myron Miller, as well. He joined a fired-up group of students at a town hall meeting to protest the threat to public schools, and to help educators, parents and others understand what schools are really like from a student's perspective.

Miller attends Sarah T. Reed Senior High School, which already shares a building with KIPP charter school, and he is fighting to keep the district from phasing out his school entirely. Miller wants his little sister to attend Reed when she is old enough.

"I'm sitting there every day watching my school lose resources and watching students leave," he says. Last year, students waited two to three weeks before they even got a teacher; no one checked attendance, and students learned very little, Miller says. Other students described a lack of counselors, and a curriculum that failed to prepare them for college.

Instead of giving up, Miller started a student organization, Reed Renaissance Initiative, and polled students about the change they'd like to see. The town hall meeting gave them an opportunity to share their ideas.

That's key, says Winnifred Anderson      Magee, who recently retired after teaching social studies for 35 years. "The most serious issue facing schools in New Orleans is the lack of community input," she says. "Families have become disenfranchised due to the fractured school system."

The result: unequal distribution of resources.

"Working together as a group will bring more attention to the problems in education," Magee says.

Representatives from the town hall events (also held in Cincinnati; Cleveland; Hillsborough County, Fla.; Minneapolis; New York City; Philadelphia and San Francisco), will gather in the coming months to synthesize participants' ideas and begin to create a set of national principles for community guidance in education.

That work will culminate in a report from the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, which has followed and participated in the meetings from the beginning. The report is expected within the year.