To get a better sense of what some of the B2S campaigns looked like on the ground, we spoke with teachers, community members, and union leaders at three case sites—Martinsville, Indiana; two communities in New York; and several communities in Texas. Each is described below.
Transition Plans and “Returning Joy” in Martinsville
Martinsville is a town of about 11,000 residents in Morgan County, Indiana. The school district includes 10 schools (7 elementary), serves about 4,000 predominantly white students, and employs 281 teachers. Being in a rural area, the elementary schools are small, and the bus rides to the centralized upper-grades schools can be quite long for some students.
Like other school districts across the country, Martinsville has seen a decline in enrollment that began prior to COVID-19—a result of population changes, economic shifts, rising competition from school voucher systems, active recruitment campaigns by charter schools, and, in some cases, dissatisfaction with previous school administrations. But the problem was exacerbated by the pandemic. In particular, the decision by the district to not offer a virtual option (citing equity concerns) led many parents to seek alternatives for remote options or to homeschool their children. Other parents chose to move their children because of an opposition to mandatory face masks in public schools. Altogether, district enrollment was down by 300 students at the start of the 2020–21 school year—about 8 percent lower than the previous year.
When Martinsville Classroom Teachers Association (MCTA) President Shannon Adams saw the AFT’s call for B2S grant proposals, she jumped on it. Working with MCTA members, school administrators, and parents, the local union crafted a multipronged plan to “return joy” to the schools. When asked what she meant by returning joy, Adams explained that schools are an important part of the community in rural areas, and during the first pandemic year, only parents were allowed to attend their child’s arts or athletic performances, leaving other community members cut off from a significant piece of local culture. “Students could not even come watch their friends perform,” she said. “School felt sterile and unwelcoming, despite our best efforts.” The resulting B2S campaign was designed to send a message to the community that the public schools were open, safe, fun, and, as Adams said, “the best game in town.”
“When we found out we got [the grant], I sent a video out—I think I was crying, ... and I hadn’t brushed my hair—I was just so excited. I had to ... do a quick presentation … to our members, and the word got out.... I ran into a school board member that morning.... I said, ‘We’re going to help get our kids back in schools!’ ” The major components of the plan included direct mailings to the community, a community night, targeted canvassing, a booth at the county fair, visible signage throughout town, and, perhaps most innovative, assigning transition assistants to each newly enrolled (or reenrolled) student as they navigated their first 8 to 10 weeks back in the public schools.
The community night event was coupled with the school’s annual “red and blue” scrimmage football game. The MCTA offered a free movie following the game and bounce houses and other activities during the game, including giant Connect 4 and Jenga and multiple cornhole boards. The association also provided a concession coupon to every child to purchase a hot dog or snack at the food stand. Tables were set up for each of the 10 school buildings and were staffed by volunteers to talk with families about school, programming, classrooms, and culture. Fortuitously, the district had just built a new field house, making the event an opportunity to provide a sneak peek of the new facility, which was a big deal for the community. Reflecting on the event, Adams said attendance was great—about 300 people—and everyone had a good time: “Just bring bounce houses and they will come.”
Direct mailings were used to promote the community night event (about 4,500 mailed), and they were also used to reach households with children who were not enrolled in the district’s public schools. These targeted mailings included information about the school system and its amenities as well as a QR code linking to a teacher-made website with more information and easy access to enrollment forms. The school district helped with the postage—freeing up some MCTA resources for other parts of their plan.
In conjunction with the mailings, the teachers had a large banner placed in a highly visible area of town. The banner let thousands of community members know the public schools were open, safe, and the best educational choice for local children. Rounding out the campaign’s visibility was the MCTA booth at the Morgan County Fair, a popular event with thousands of attendees each day. There, teachers had conversations with families and asked what they needed to feel comfortable with the idea of returning to school. (The teachers even won the prize for the best-decorated booth.)
Beyond these public appearances, the Martinsville teachers pulled together a team of eight member-canvassers who went out in pairs to knock on doors in areas with high concentrations of unenrolled students. Teachers were equipped with flyers, school enrollment forms, and school backpacks with some starter supplies for families in need. “I can guarantee,” Adams said, “the parents we spoke with never had anybody come to their door and say, ‘Tell me about your kids’ education and tell me what you want.’ ” Based on one of these conversations, the MCTA worked with the transportation company to create a new bus stop, which made for a safer pickup for one student whose family then returned to the public schools (and was very thankful!).
Overall, the canvassing experience was great, Adams said, but she confessed that getting members to participate was initially more challenging than she had anticipated. “A lot of people don’t feel comfortable canvassing—it’s perceived as somehow confrontational, which it totally is not.” The MCTA therefore decided to incentivize canvassing by offering stipends for participation. “I think we doubled, maybe even tripled, our budget [for canvassing and school supplies], but for good reason—because that’s where we were getting the greatest impact.”
The final piece of the Martinsville plan, which dovetailed with the canvassing and was one of the more innovative B2S recruitment tools we encountered, was the creation of transition plans for new and returning students. School workers sought out “lost” students, engaged their families in deep conversations about their child’s education and the district, and developed a strong relationship with the student and family. Then they created an agreement to be that student’s “transition person” as they were welcomed back into Martinsville schools. The transition person was to be the key contact person for the student for the first 8 to 10 weeks of school, helping them (re)acclimate, answering questions, offering advice, and providing personal support.
“The transition piece,” Adams said, “was about having someone that the student felt comfortable with, and they were going to help solve any issues they had. They were their contact person, and it was that person’s job to make sure that all of their problems were taken care of.” At first, the MCTA thought all the transition people would be teachers, but they ultimately decided to include other district employees, including paraprofessionals, school staff, and a bus driver.
The Martinsville B2S plan had many bright spots and offers many lessons and ideas for other local unions to engage with their communities to bring more students back to public schools this year. Although Martinsville has a very conservative political climate and the statewide voucher system in Indiana is one of the most robust in the country, the MCTA reported overwhelming support from families, who were excited to see teachers at their door and loved the opportunity to talk about their children and grandchildren. The transition teamwork was rewarding for both the incoming students and the transition people, who played an important role of building trust and a feeling of belonging. In the end, Martinsville student enrollment in the 2021–22 school year was up by 150 students, representing about half of the lost students returning to in-person public education.
“One of the biggest takeaway lessons,” Adams said, was “if we want our public schools to thrive, then our public needs to see our schools outside of the school, and the way they do that ... [is to] see our people talking to them, listening to their needs, and saying, ‘Hey, let me tell you what we have to offer.’ That’s the only way our public really knows who we are.”
Harnessing the Power of Conversation in New York
Despite having a progressive state political climate, members of New York State United Teachers (NYSUT) confronted significant challenges during the pandemic and the return to in-person learning. Representing more than 600,000 teachers and education professionals, NYSUT is home to more than 1,200 local affiliates. According to Executive Director Melinda Person, the goal of NYSUT’s B2S campaign was threefold: providing stipends for parents to prepare their kids for a return to in-person learning, doing community outreach to discuss safety and provide accurate information on vaccines, and conducting a parent survey.
We had the opportunity to speak with teachers from the Albany Public School Teachers’ Association (APSTA) and the Rochester Teachers Association (RTA) to gain insights into what their campaigns looked like on the ground, including some of the challenges they had to overcome.
We learned that both locals faced significant budget cuts. During the pandemic, former governor Andrew Cuomo’s administration threatened a 15 percent cut to local school budgets, a significant cut on top of what was already reduced funding for public schools in the state. While NYSUT was able to effectively challenge the constitutionality of the proposed cuts in court, superintendents in some school districts made budgetary decisions that anticipated these reductions in funding.
According to APSTA President Laura Franz, the district laid off nearly 275 people in the fall of 2020. Many of these positions were not restored until May 2021. The funding cuts and layoffs increased workloads for teachers, who faced larger classes and increased course loads on top of the logistics challenges created by remote schooling. Not surprisingly, the experience strained the relationship between the local union and district leadership. Both Albany and Rochester saw declines in enrollment across 2020 and 2021.
On top of budgetary shortfalls and layoffs was an absence of meaningful guidance about the return to in-person schooling from either state or local leaders. Franz noted, “We spent all summer thinking we’re just going to open up schools like normal.... July and August are when you plan and figure out what you’re going to do next. In the absence of that guidance, none of us knew what we were going to do next.”
The guidance was not issued until August 18, 2021, with students returning to schools on September 5. “That’s ridiculous,” Franz noted. “A lot of parents were concerned about the lack of planning, and it was really hard to reassure people because we were feeling the same way.”
Rochester teachers Gia Vallone and Molly Bianco also noted that although the district has largely failed to address enrollment decline, much of the public discourse has conflated RTA with the school board and superintendent. “I think the relationship between our district as its own board of education entity and the union gets very blurred, especially with the media,” Bianco said.
RTA members saw their B2S campaign as an opportunity to draw a sharp contrast between their union’s support for a safe and just return to in-person learning and what they saw as a lack of action by school leaders to make those goals a reality. Both RTA and APSTA viewed their campaigns as a means to build stronger relationships and trust with their local communities. Vallone said she wanted to better understand how teachers could serve their students and families, but the campaign was also an opportunity to help the community better understand the union’s role. “Having those conversations just helps us to be on the same page and move forward together,” she said.
Similarly, Franz explained that the goal of APSTA’s campaign was to “foster community connections between teachers and families about a safe, in-person return to school, as well as making sure we were communicating and educating about vaccines.”
Both campaigns sought to accomplish these goals primarily through canvassing in areas of their districts that had been hard-hit by the pandemic. APSTA was able to pull from the ranks of their laid-off members—many of whom were also residents of Albany—as well as other teachers in their membership. Franz said the most effective way to recruit canvassers in her local was calling members and being diligent about follow-up.
Similarly, despite having never canvassed before, Vallone and Bianco in Rochester were both recruited by their local leadership. NYSUT provided extensive training and technical support to all locals engaged in canvassing, which Vallone and Bianco found helpful in building their confidence and skills.
The scripts used by APSTA and RTA canvassers were more open-ended than those used in a traditional Get Out the Vote effort. This allowed for more organic conversations focused on what parents and community members needed and wanted out of public education. According to Franz, APSTA wanted “to communicate to parents about what we were doing as a union, that we wanted students back, and that we wanted a safe working and learning environment. We also wanted to ask about why parents were [deciding not] to send their students back, and what we could do to help facilitate that return.”
RTA was also looking to understand parental concerns, in addition to increasing membership in the Rochester Community Coalition to Save Our Schools, a community-labor coalition fighting for adequate funding of public education in the district. In this way, RTA struck a balance between overcoming the short-term barriers that parents were facing in the return to in-person schooling and building the long-term power required to create a more accessible and responsive public education system in the city.
The APSTA and RTA campaigns both reported receiving little assistance from their district leadership, due in large part to strained relations between labor and management. Both unions believed that better data from the district could have increased the impact of their canvassing efforts. NYSUT helped by providing affiliates with local voter files (which are public records) to develop canvassing turfs. Both locals stated that these lists were effective, albeit less targeted—but even if canvassers were knocking on doors of people who were not families in the district, they were still increasing public awareness and support for the union’s work for a safe return to in-person schooling.
In other words, while collaboration with administration can contribute to success, it does not determine success, and B2S campaigning can still be a great way for locals to engage with their community—even if district leadership chooses not to. As Franz argues, “We are as much entitled to go and connect with families in the community as our district leadership is.”
Both locals reported that B2S gave members a firsthand lesson about the pressing needs in their communities, as well as the opportunity to deepen community partnerships to help create a long-term transformation in their cities’ public school systems. According to Bianco, “Parents and families are our partners. It’s super important to hear them, listen to them, and work together in partnership to do what’s best for our kids. I’ve always thought that, but this [campaign] just put it in your face. It’s so easy to separate school and community.”
Similarly, Franz underscored how the campaign illustrated clearly that there is more commonality than difference between educators and their community. “I think it reminded me of the importance of making that community connection between the work we do with the people we serve and reminding me that we all have a common goal to provide our students ... with the best possible educational outcomes that we can. We are more alike than different, and we need to continue to connect and communicate around how we are trying to achieve that.”
Building Labor-Community Connections in Texas
In Texas, some union leaders were projecting public school enrollment would be down by 8 to 10 percent statewide before the start of the 2021 school year, based on their conversations with community members. But actual declines in AFT locals were much smaller. According to union leaders we interviewed, Aldine reported a decline of 3,800 students from 63,130 students in the 2019–20 school year, San Antonio reported a decline of 3,000 from 48,495 students, and Houston was down 12,000 from 209,309 students. Other districts in the state experienced similar levels of decline. In many cases, declining enrollment predated COVID-19, due in part to the rise of charter schools and their active advertising and recruitment campaigns.1
“We have been monitoring the charter work in Texas,” Texas AFT President Zeph Capo told us, “and they put quite literally millions and millions of dollars into advertising, commercializing their programs, and we simply just don’t do that in [traditional] public schools.”
Political concerns related to COVID-19 have also impacted school enrollment significantly in Texas. Specifically, with a state government that was preventing local school districts from making decisions about masking and other safety protocols, along with little reliable information about school safety plans being shared with parents, the charter and private schools in Texas jumped on the opportunity to recruit even more public school students by offering the safety measures (or freedom from them) that some parents wanted for their children.
Capo explained, “There was so much going on that people didn’t know which way they were going, whether there were going to be mask mandates or not,” and it inhibited decision making. Ultimately, several public schools defied the governor’s ban on mask mandates and were triumphant in court, securing the right to require masks in school buildings.
In the midst of this confusion and uncertainty, several B2S grants were awarded in Texas, including a statewide grant and a number of smaller grants to individual affiliates. According to Capo, the primary goals for the statewide campaign were gathering and disseminating reliable information to communities about the operating status and safety of public schools; retaining and bringing lost students back into public schools; and supporting decision making on schooling from a local level—by community members, teachers, students, parents, and local elected leaders.
Additionally, teachers from the Aldine, Austin, and Houston locals described leadership building and making strong community connections as two of their goals in order to provide greater teacher and community voice in their districts. Representatives from Education Austin told us they were trying to create strong and enduring partnerships with parents and community—a long-standing goal that the campaign helped to jump-start. Similarly, teachers in San Antonio talked about listening to their members, students, and community members to identify issues and build a unifying campaign, and teachers from Dallas spoke about building a better relationship with their district and school board.
Unlike in Martinsville and New York, teachers in Texas are not permitted to engage in collective bargaining with school districts, a factor that influenced the nature of grant proposals coming from the Lone Star state. Local campaigns in these highly diverse school districts comprised a range of tactics, including community canvassing, worksite visits, phone banking and texting, internal organizing of members, vaccine clinics, tabling at public events, and offering educational sessions about topics such as vaccines, masks, ventilation, distancing, testing, and/or outbreak protocols. A common theme was the concerted effort to build deep and lasting relationships between the union and the community. “Certainly part of our interest,” said Hobie Hukill, a retired teacher and canvasser from Alliance/AFT in Dallas, “was to make direct contact with the folks in the community—the parents, the grandparents, and uncles and aunts—to establish our union as a go-to resource, a reliable source of information and support that was on their side.”
In addition to making community connections, some Texas affiliates sought to empower communities by increasing their influence in local policy decisions. The San Antonio Alliance exemplified this effort by hosting regular community-labor town halls at outdoor venues. The meetings typically attracted around 40 attendees to discuss school and community concerns, including how best to use the public money allocated by the state through the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) program.
As part of a progressive labor-community coalition, the teachers also helped to elect a pro-public education member to the school board and ultimately won the establishment of an ESSER stakeholder committee to ensure community participation in decisions on resource allocation. San Antonio Alliance President Alejandra Lopez told us: “We knew that there was a timeline on these funds, and we tried to think, what would best position us to continue to have robust community engagement around these funds? We settled on getting a stakeholder committee to ensure community engagement around the ESSER funds as a vehicle to have more democratic decision making.”
The Houston Federation of Teachers dedicated much of its efforts to providing material support to students and families in need, including helping them access rental support and meet other basic needs. Describing the dire nature of the situation in some communities, local President Jackie Anderson explained: “The places where a lot of people worked had closed down, so they had no income, and we are talking about both parents without a job, unable to provide food and shelter for their children.”
As part of its B2S campaign, the Houston Federation of Teachers equipped canvassers and phone bankers with resources and contact information to connect families with much-needed public services. “Not only did we work on getting students back to school,” Anderson said, “but we had to be able to get the assistance they needed ... because if they don’t have a place to live, they’re not going to be able to send their students to school.”
Local canvassers also helped connect families to healthcare, utility bill relief, food drives, and information about the safety of vaccines and where to access them for free. “They have to have those basic needs met,” Anderson said, “and so we were happy that we were able to get them that information and build trust.”
Economic challenges were pervasive in Aldine as well, a Title I district serving a student population that is 80 percent Hispanic and 18 percent African American and where 80 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. “Many of our families have two and three generations in the home,” Aldine AFT President Candis Houston told us, which made many families reluctant to send children to schools without a mask mandate in place.
An important part of Aldine AFT’s B2S campaign was a series of fall festivals organized in partnership with the school district and hosted at each of the high schools. The festivals were a place where the community could meet the teachers—all proudly wearing their AFT shirts—but they were also used as free vaccination clinics. “We partnered with Harris County [Public] Health to provide those vaccinations,” Houston said, “and since the county was no longer giving gift cards as an incentive for being vaccinated, we provided Visa gift cards ourselves out of the grant money, just to show appreciation and create an incentive.”
In the face of the difficulties created by inadequate and confusing state government policies around school safety and the inability to bargain directly with school districts, the Texas teachers’ locals had to take a social-movement approach in their efforts first to ensure that schools were safe and second to bring kids back into the buildings. By standing up for strong school safety protocols, including supporting mask mandates that the governor had banned, the local union canvassers were reflecting the desires of their school communities and, in the end, created a pathway to a safe school reopening for students and teachers alike.
“The families that we were talking to felt that [Governor Greg Abbott] was no friend of theirs for a whole multitude of reasons,” Hukill from Dallas told us, “and in an odd way, that was helpful to us. They appreciated us standing in opposition to the craziness he was putting out, ... and we were well-received for just being on the right side of the issues.”
By reaching out to, listening to, speaking with, and aiding local communities, Texas teachers began to build stronger relationships with parents and often with school district administrators and school boards as well. In the end, the combined Texas B2S campaign efforts helped reduce the enrollment gap from an expected 8 percent decline to an estimated decline of just 2 percent—no small feat in the face of great adversity. When reflecting on what they would do differently next year, Capo said he would definitely start earlier. And what would help? “Support for really solid year-round organizing infrastructure, ... [and] a team that can be around more often than just when there’s a program going on. That’s really important.”
Many of the Texas locals we interviewed expressed similar feelings about needing to plan sooner for the following year. There were also some unique suggestions about needs for next year, including greater access to shared materials and resources. Candis Houston of Aldine AFT raised the concern that a lot of smaller locals don’t have the staff to create materials on their own. She said that to the extent materials “can be provided [or shared] that can be adaptable to our own use, [that] would be very helpful”—an idea that can now perhaps take shape after the insight and experience gained from the first year of the campaign.
–T. E. V., K. C., and J. B.
1. Texas Education Agency, Enrollment in Texas Public Schools 2020–21 (Austin: Texas Education Agency, June 2021), tea.texas.gov/sites/default/files/enroll-2020-21.pdf.
[Martinsville photos: courtesy of the Martinsville Classroom Teachers Association; Albany photo: AFT; Texas photos: courtesy of AFT Texas and the Houston Federation of Teachers]