A gem of a school in Oregon

This school has everything: vital and respected classified staff, loving families, a caring principal and teachers, a supportive community—even an emotional support dog. That’s why, when AFT President Randi Weingarten visited the school together with the Oregon School Employees Association, their recognition put a cherry on top.

The students of Greenway Elementary School ride to school in yellow buses and also bike, walk and scooter there every morning with their families and friends. The preK-5 Title I school is in Beaverton, a city just west of Portland with about 40,000 students in a population of 100,000.

Photo of AFT President Randi Weingarten, right, being greeted by Greenway Principal Jennifer Whitten.
AFT President Randi Weingarten, right, is greeted outside the school’s front door by Greenway Principal Jennifer Whitten.

Greenway is a living, breathing example of the AFT’s new campaign, Real Solutions for Kids and Communities. It’s a community school, yes. But not just because it provides wraparound services, supporting students’ mental health and well-being, running a food pantry and embracing experiential learning.

Greenway is the heart of the neighborhood. The visitors felt it.

One example of Greenway’s culture of caring is its therapy dog, Luna, who cheerfully accompanied the visitors for their entire tour. Another example is how the school’s ethos of kindness to all creatures was demonstrated by a child who carefully lifted a worm from the sidewalk and put it back on the soil.

Weingarten was greeted outside the front door by Greenway Principal Jennifer Whitten. “This school is showing us how to have real solutions” that help kids thrive, the AFT president said later during a news conference at the school. “This is who we are.”

During their tour on the morning of Aug. 30, the visitors were guided by student ambassadors. Their first stop was a classroom featuring a “mood meter” on the wall that helps children gauge their emotions in meteorological terms: sunny, rainy, stormy or cloudy. They also stopped by an engineering class where students build things.

OSEA President Sarah Wofford lauded the district’s “pathway” or “career ladder” program, in which school support staff can work their way through college, earning degrees in education. At Greenway, a library tech and a paraeducator advanced their careers through the program.

Photo of AFT President Randi Weingarten sitting with students.
Weingarten sat with students who asked where she likes to have fun. Then they drew pictures of the beach, which she promised to keep in her office.

The union’s chapter in Beaverton, like every chapter statewide, is made up of classified employees, including paraeducators, bus drivers, food service workers, custodians and other support staff—all of whom put the “support” in support staff by helping kids not only learn to read but love reading.

Weingarten spoke about a Greenway student who had struggled with reading. Together, the child’s paraprofessional and teacher figured out that if the student ate a little snack before her reading lessons, then she would feel more energized and ready to learn.

At the start of Weingarten’s visit, this girl had read every Mo Willems book in the school. By a stroke of luck (and some attention to what inspires young readers), the AFT’s Reading Opens the World campaign brought nearly a thousand new books to Greenway, and our union was able to give the child a new book co-authored by Willems and LeUyen Pham, The Itchy Book! Weingarten recounted how the student excitedly described to visitors all of Willems’ stories and characters.

Kyrsti Sackman, president of OSEA’s Beaverton chapter, took the story from there: After school, that child cried with happiness on the way home because she had received four new books to keep, and she’d already read them all. A year ago, she wasn’t a confident reader. Thanks to her educators and their union, now she was not only a confident reader but a joyful one.

“We can all connect over literacy,” Sackman said.

If you have a few minutes, watch the news conference to get a fuller sense of this exemplary school, the AFT visit and a cameo appearance by therapy dog Luna, a 7-year-old Labradoodle and local celebrity who has her own Instagram account, school badge and “Luna cards,” like Pokémon cards, that students can buy at the school store.

Photo of artwork with butterflies that reads "We do second chances"

Sackman says a highlight for her as a local union leader was seeing Weingarten meeting and engaging with students and staff. “We all know who Randi is, what she’s done, her big fight,” the special education para said. But for many rank-and-file members, “being seen and feeling supported was really cool. Seeing everybody so excited. Being seen, being heard, being glorified. That was really special.”

The visitors were especially impressed with the fifth-grade student ambassadors and other children willing to talk about their school while standing in front of what Sackman called “30 random strangers” from the national, state and local union, the school district and the media. But really, the visitors were impressed with the whole tour.

Along the way, they met up with Glenn Mathew, an OSEA member and a school bus driver in Beaverton, a big fan of the Oregon Ducks and a cheerful presence who drops by the school during his breaks. He says his favorite part of the job is the kids because every day is different and each child has a unique personality.

Literacy truly was the order of the day. Asked for her strongest memory of the visit, Sackman says it was how excited the student ambassadors were about reading. They were excited for their new books, for talking about their reading, and for how they were going to read the books to their families.

“When we say we want to build confident and joyful readers, you can’t just do that,” Weingarten said at the news conference. “It takes skill and knowledge to do that, … and that’s what we saw today. You see it. You see the intentionality at Greenway. You see it in terms of value and joy and happiness and inclusion. This is what education is.”

[Annette Licitra]