In Dallas, Schools and Unions Build Community Partnerships

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AFT president Randi Weingarten took her message of community building on the road Aug. 31, kicking off the school year by visiting two schools in Dallas and meeting with groups of community leaders and parent activists.

"Parents, teachers and communities all want the same thing: strong neighborhood schools for all our children," she said.

photo by Milton Hinnant

Randi Weingarten at Nathaniel Hawthorne Elementary School, where local businesses donated books, rulers, pens and pencils, uniforms, backpacks and more to the school's supply closet.

  That message is at the heart of a new campaign to build broad community support for public schools. Weingarten asked the community and school activists to sign pledge forms signaling their commitment, and to "raise your hand for public education, not as it is today but as we know it can be."

At a dinner the night before with the executive board of Alliance-AFT, the 10,000-member union representing teachers and staff at Dallas Independent School District schools, the AFT president applauded the work they and some of the schools had already begun. That made Dallas a natural pick to be the first stop of the "Raise Your Hand" campaign. "We want to shine a spotlight on what works and find a way to support you as you foster your partnerships," Weingarten said.

The next day, those partnerships were on display at David W. Carter High School, a school known for producing National Football League players and, more recently, for its fine arts programs. Serving a large proportion of economically disadvantaged students, Carter's talented principal, Gail-David Dupree, and its committed staff have been willing to go to great lengths to reach students and their families, inside and outside of school.

As a result, the community is willing to go to lengths to support the school, said parents and community leaders who came to the school for a roundtable discussion with Weingarten.

"So often, people come to us and ask for help," said Abe Cooper, a pastor at Antioch Baptist Church. "But when schools start showing they are willing to help themselves, we want to jump in. We have a sense of shared responsibility."

Businessman Eddie Deen, owner of a successful barbecue franchise, spoke about his participation and financial support for "Stand Up/Man Up," an eight-month-old male mentoring program started by art teacher Curtis Ferguson that has caught on like wildfire. The program provides skills and work opportunities for young men at Carter and other middle and high schools in the Dallas area, and an alternative to a life of gangs and violence with which many are so familiar.

"Teachers are more than willing to shoulder a heavy load to make sure our children succeed, but we cannot do it alone," Weingarten said. "We need the help of everyone—government and school district officials, community partners and, most importantly, parents."

"When communities step up, even in the smallest of ways," said Dallas superintendent of schools Michael Hinojosa, "it signals that the critical work taking place on that campus is recognized by many who stand to benefit from an educated workforce in the future."

Hinojosa was one of 20 people who met at Alliance-AFT headquarters for a brainstorming roundtable discussion with parents and members of the community. Those present included heads of the local NAACP and AFL-CIO chapters, eight school board members, a PTA leader, ministers and a member of the Texas House of Representatives. Texas AFT president and AFT vice president Linda Bridges led the discussion. The group talked about the 48 percent high school graduation rate in Dallas, about teachers as the linchpin for success in the classroom, how to build and sustain successful programs, how to collect and understand systemic data, and how to encourage and support good teaching.

The day ended at Nathaniel Hawthorne Elementary School, where local businesses donated books, rulers, pens and pencils, uniforms, backpacks and more to build the holdings of the school's supply closet. More than a dozen groups kicked in, and they were recognized for their spirit by school leaders.

Alliance-AFT president Rena Honea said the school visits were just the beginning of an effort to build stronger community partnerships across Dallas. "With budget shortfalls everywhere, we have to work together to take care of our most important resources: our children. Nowadays, it takes a community to raise a child, and we are putting that into action."

The next stops on AFT's 10-city tour are Newark, N.J., on Sept. 3 and Cincinnati on Sept. 6 and 7. Other stops include Charleston, W.Va.; St. Paul, Minn.; Broward and Dade Counties, Fla.; Billings and Missoula, Mont.; Central Falls and Pawtucket, R.I.; Albany, N.Y.; Detroit; and Cleveland. [Barbara McKenna/photo by Milton Hinnant/video by Matthew Jones]

Sept. 1, 2010