'Making a Difference Every Day Tour' Stops in Newark

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The AFT's Making a Difference Every Day tour stopped in Newark, N.J., Feb. 28, where AFT president Randi Weingarten visited an innovative school that teachers in the district helped open last fall and spoke to members at a meeting of the Newark Teachers Union.

Randi Weingarten at school in Newark  Weingarten's visit began with a stop at the BRICK Avon Academy. After years of poor performance on state tests, high absenteeism among students and staff, and a disconnect between the school and the community, teachers worked with principal Charity Haygood (pictured at left with Weingarten) to bring a new program to the K-8 school. The revamped school features a global education curriculum, including classes in Mandarin Chinese for its K-3 students. In the middle grades, each class adopts the name of a college. As students in the Kansas University class told Weingarten and the other visitors, naming the classes after colleges symbolizes a goal that all students at the school share: to attend college.

Mary Gangi, the Newark Teachers Union building representative at the school, says that all the staff work together and solve problems to maintain a focus on student learning. While it's too early to see testing results, student attendance is up, parental involvement has increased and there's a new sense of shared responsibility for student learning.

That focus on learning was readily apparent throughout the school. The halls displayed student work ranging from extended-answer math problems to essays, alongside college pennants hanging from the ceilings. In their classrooms, students were sharing writing assignments, engaged in group activities learning about probability, and practicing proper pronunciation in their Chinese classes.

Acting Newark superintendent Deborah Terrell and Essex County superintendent Larry Feinsod joined Weingarten, along with Newark Teachers Union president Joe Del Grosso and other union officials and school administrators.

Following the school visit, Weingarten met with NTU leaders and then addressed teachers at the union's general membership meeting. She talked about the challenges teachers face today, especially in urban areas where students must deal with a range of issues that can detract from their learning.

"I know you have stress in your classrooms every single day. If a child is hungry, that makes it hard for you to do your job," Weingarten said. "Of course, we have to help not just some kids, but all kids, by preparing them for the knowledge economy, and that takes more than teaching them to bubble in a test sheet."

All this comes at a time when teachers and other public employees are the focus of scrutiny and unprecedented attacks on their rights. "The public must see us as proactive change agents," Weingarten stressed. "We've got to take the things that are working, and we've got to shine a spotlight on them. And the things that aren't working, we've got to lead the change. At the end of the day, we must make sure we are focused on what is working for kids." [Dan Gursky, Joan Devlin, Ruthanne Buck/photos by David Grossman/Video by Matthew Jones and Brett Sherman]

March 1, 2011