AFT National Leaders Stand with Florida Educators

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AFT president Randi Weingarten and AFT executive vice president Lorretta Johnson were in Florida this week to help educators showcase excellence in their public schools, build frontline voice through union strength and forge enduring ties within the community—groundwork that can transform the state's toxic and divisive political environment into a new chapter of respectful dialogue and collaborative school improvement.

Randi Weingarten visits school in Orlando, Fla.

Weingarten visited Orange County on May 5, where she toured both a middle school that skillfully incorporates digital design into core studies and an elementary school that recently won national acclaim for its battle to help students and families facing homelessness. The AFT president also sat down with the Orlando Sentinel editorial board and spoke at a cookout for labor and the community, hosted by the Orange County Classroom Teachers Association and the Orange Education Support Professionals Association.

A highlight of the Orlando visit was a roundtable discussion that incorporated an impressive array of community voices. Represented at the table were education and other labor unions, parents' groups, local and state school boards and PTAs, NAACP representatives, faith leaders, grass-roots coalitions for strong public schools, and schools superintendent Ron Blocker, who also joined Weingarten for the school tour.

Weingarten commended the broad spectrum represented in the room for coming together last year to help pass an $85 million levy for the county's schools—funding that can help insulate students from devastating state education cuts and point the way to school improvement through consensus. "Even in tough times, Orange County gets that our kids come first," Weingarten said. The joint action "reflects a sense of confidence in public education that comes because it has been earned. … And it shows that when we are together, no one can break us."

Johnson in Hillsborough County

Lorretta Johnson visits a school in Hillsborough County 

AFT executive vice president Lorretta Johnson, meanwhile, participated in events hosted by the Hillsborough Classroom Teachers Association (HCTA) and the Hillsborough School Employees Federation (HSEF). She took part in a breakfast meeting with key players in the community, including the president of Hillsborough County PTA, an activist with the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC), and representatives of the local NAACP chapter. Johnson also participated in a press conference where school board members and the presidents of both local unions blasted a state budget that would force the Hillsborough school district to cut its budget by $100 million.

The $100 million cut, HCTA president Jean Clements pointed out, comes on top of the $124 million that the school district has had to slash over the last four years. "No one in Tallahassee is acknowledging that these cuts hurt Florida's children," lamented Clements, who said the harm caused by these cuts will have a long-term effect on students.

Recent budget cuts, along with the cuts currently being sought by the governor and state Legislature, have already taken an emotional toll on the school system's support staff, HSEF president Josephine Gonzalez told the press conference. "Morale is not good among the employees who cook and clean and drive the buses."

Echoing the deep-seated concerns of the parent, community and union leaders gathered at the press conference, Johnson said: "Those of us here today are going to do everything we can to make sure that Florida children get the message that they are a priority."

Though confronted with a budget crisis that threatens increased class sizes and a rollback of some of the impressive gains made by Hillsborough County schools and students in recent years, community activists and union leaders were decidedly upbeat during the breakfast meeting. Several of them said they saw the crisis as one around which school employees, parents, faith leaders and other key players in the community could rally—and have an impact on both state legislation and elections.

"We know what works in education, and it's not funding cuts or vouchers," said Johnson, who noted that AFT affiliates across the country are aggressively reaching out to the community in an effort to beat back attacks on schools and educators––and advocate for the needs of children. "We know we can't do this alone."

Positive Press for School Visits

The Florida visits also generated media attention for public education's frontline workers and the contributions they make in schools every day. At Ocoee Middle School in Orange County, students and teachers showcased yearbooks, planners and other products of cutting-edge instruction in digital design. Teachers stressed how they work hard to make digital design an effective vehicle for engaging students in content areas. "We hit them with algebra—and they don't even see it coming," teacher Anthony San Filippo said of his students in digital game design.

Leonard Connors, Fern Creek Elem. The Orange County tour also stopped at Fern Creek Elementary, the focus of a recent New York Times story that highlighted the school's commitment to serve and educate homeless students. While there, Weingarten presented a $500 AFT contribution to the foundation that supports work with homeless students, and visited classrooms to learn more about elements in place to keep learning opportunity on track for vulnerable students. The school's approach includes 90 mentors from the community; a strong, consistent discipline policy; and high academic expectations for every child. The program works well because it has earned the commitment and confidence of teachers, staff and administrators throughout the building, said third-grade teacher Leonard Connors (pictured at right), who believes that, when it comes to these positive school initiatives, "a lot of people just don't know what's going on in schools." (The Orlando Sentinal also ran a piece on Weingarten's visit.)

In Tampa, Johnson visited two schools: Howard W. Blake High School and Sulphur Springs Elementary School. Both schools have recently been singled out for their innovative programs and the impressive achievement gains of their students. Sulpher Springs' success was highlighted in a recent St. Petersburg Times article.

During the meeting at Blake, Hillsborough County school board chairwoman and former teacher Doretha Edgecomb said educators and top school district officials have to take the lead in speaking out on behalf of the public schools. "We have to be the strongest, loudest and most persistent voice," she asserted.

The May 5 visits by Weingarten and Johnson generated positive illustrations of school improvement built around consensus—a powerful counterpoint to events simultaneously unfolding in Tallahassee. There, the state Legislature was wrapping up one of the most divisive sessions in years, one saddled from the outset by the fringe education agenda set by Gov. Rick Scott. He has called for legislation that vilifies and denigrates teachers and their profession; supplants rich learning opportunities with simplistic, test-driven environments; and transfers vital aid for schools and other essential services to unnecessary corporate tax breaks.

These cynical attacks are unfolding in many states, Weingarten told crowds across Orange County. They aim to silence the voice of educators, the voice expressed most effectively and democratically through their unions, and to foment division—softening the political landscape by splintering groups still committed to the types of public schools that preserve opportunity for the next generation. These are the preconditions for a destructive transfer of scarce public resources to a handful of wealthy, well-connected private interests. In this environment, Weingarten said, "we stand tall and proud to be teachers, PSRPs, members of a labor union that is as vibrant as possible" and committed to defeating this trend. [Mike Rose, Roger Glass/photos by Edward Linsmier (Tampa) and Gregg Matthews (Orlando)]

May 6, 2011