Austin: Better Schools Start with Greater Trust

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photo by Bob DaemmrichA breakfast meeting drew representatives from Education Austin, Austin Interfaith, the PTA, Texas AFT and the school district.

Texas AFT members in Austin kicked off the new school year by showing AFT secretary-treasurer Lorretta Johnson many ways that trust builds community and community builds education.

Johnson's visits on Sept. 7—her last stop in a nationwide back-to-school tour—started with a breakfast meeting hosted by AFT affiliate Education Austin and attended by community leaders from Austin Interfaith, the school district and the PTA. Johnson then met a crowd of school bus drivers at one of the city's bus bays, and wound up her tour at J.J. Pickle Elementary School.

Over breakfast, AFT leaders listened as community advocates for Travis Heights Elementary School outlined how they have banded together to address challenges facing the school.

"The union has been there from the beginning," said Minerva Camarena-Steith, mother of two students at Travis Heights and president of the PTA. Members of Education Austin have never placed any limits on what might be attempted or achieved, she added, but only ask: "Is it good for kids?"

The school's principal agreed. "As a public school principal, you're on a little wheel," said Lisa Robertson. "You give kids everything you can every day, but it's hard to step off that wheel." The principal appreciates having the union by her side, she said, because of its ability to provide fresh insights and a larger model for student achievement.

Travis Heights parents feel like they're part of the team, added Camarena-Steith. "They feel that they're active agents for their children's education. That doesn't mean we always agree … but in the conversation, something new is created—the best strategies, the best programs." And members of Austin Interfaith said that because of this teamwork, they've been able to expand their own contributions from after-school care, healthcare and summer jobs for youth into more serious education strategies.

Johnson offered an example from California in which parents joined with the union and the school board to suppress gangs and build community schools. Texas AFT president and AFT vice president Linda Bridges pointed out that it's this kind of tight collaboration among the union, the community and the district that won Education Austin a grant from the AFT Innovation Fund to explore possibilities for site-based management. A high level of trust, Bridges said, lets collaboration move forward despite any disagreements. "I want to congratulate you," she said, "because this isn't easy work."

Sunset Valley Bus Barn

Photo by Bob DaemmrichAFT secretary-treasurer Lorretta Johnson shares  a laugh with Education Austin member and 13-year bus driver Lisa Pannell.

Next it was on to the Sunset Valley Bus Barn, where Johnson found another tight-knit community. She told school transportation workers the story of an AFT member in West Virginia who figured out a system to thwart a bully on his bus, and she wanted them to know that the AFT appreciates their contributions.

Austin's school transportation director Kris Hafezizadeh welcomed the AFT visitors and assured them that the district was doing everything it could to help families caught in deadly wildfires burning across central Texas and blanketing Austin in a smoky haze. Drivers and mechanics then gathered around long tables and traded ideas with the AFT leaders. Driver Lisa Pannell said she transports only a handful of students during one of her runs, and that the district could save fuel by putting those children on a smaller bus. Driver Christina Campbell said cell phones are the main reason cars fail to stop for the bus; the group discussed their practice of sending "frustration tickets" to the sheriff's office.

Here, too, AFT members exhibited a Texas-size portion of trust and community. School bus technician Ira Rollins said he does everything he can to keep buses in tip-top shape because his favorite thing is seeing drivers' faces after their vehicles have been repaired. "Drivers love their own buses," he said. Many drivers discussed their tactics for keeping students orderly and safe.

photo by Bob DaemmrichTexas AFT president Linda Bridges, left, and  Johnson tour the bus bays.

Campbell noted that her mother also was a school bus driver. "Now I'm out fighting for the rights of drivers—for our jobs, really—like my mother used to do," she said. "If you go up to the north shop, there are still people up there who have permission to whup my behind. I'm 44 years old. I grew up in a wonderful family. I fight for my family, the drivers, the bus monitors, the custodians and the teaching assistants."

Driver Maria Davis acknowledged that transportation workers do have plenty to fight for. Thanks to budget cuts, their sick leave has been reduced, they're paying more for less health insurance, they're only guaranteed four hours of work a day for nine months a year, and they haven't had a raise in a long while. But "when it's time, everybody pulls together," she said.

"That's what we've been hearing from our members all over the country," Johnson said. "They want a voice. They see something wrong, and they want to make it better." She thanked the workers, reminding them that they have a voice nationally and noting that their work is important, from guiding wayward passengers to getting students to school and home safely.

J.J. Pickle Elementary School

photo by Bob DaemmrichPickle Elementary third-graders learn firsthand about static electricity.

The tour's last stop was J.J. Pickle Elementary School, nestled in a working class community and attached to a complex that also houses the neighborhood recreation center, community center and public library. At the school, principal Joel De la Garza escorted the group to the classroom of AFT member Debra Overton, who was teaching her third-graders science words such as "conclusion" and "experiment." After they put their word cards back in their "briefcases," Overton helped them conduct an exciting experiment with static electricity. Then it was on to another science class, this one led by fifth-grade teacher Shirley Saryee, on the physical properties of matter.

Once again, Johnson thanked her hosts and recalled that when she joined the AFT's top officers in 2008, president Randi Weingarten vowed to "put everything on the table" and rethink long-standing ideas about what will make schools better. The way to improve schools, Johnson said, is to engage local citizens. "I tell you, it's the community that's going to change the narrative about public schools," she said. "It's incumbent on us—the parents, the union, the community—to change the future of public education." [Annette Licitra/photos by Bob Daemmrich]

September 9, 2011