Miami Visit Highlights Need for Community Schools

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AFT president Randi Weingarten joined union and civic leaders in Florida on Feb. 8 to talk to teachers and other education stakeholders at a school located in the heart of downtown Miami, in a neighborhood known as "Little Haiti." The devastating January earthquake in Haiti exposes the long-standing nationwide need for more community schools that can deliver a broad range of student and family help, from after-school academics to healthcare services.

Toussaint L'Ouverture Elementary in Miami is just one of hundreds of schools across the nation now struggling to serve an influx of Haitian earthquake victims arriving by the thousands in Florida and other states since Jan. 12. It's a challenge, Toussaint L'Ouverture staff and administrators say, and it requires a new type of school, one designed to offer health, family, emotional and social services that reach deep into the community. And staff members stress that this challenge is not recent or headline-driven—not at a school like Toussaint L'Ouverture, where a mobile, diverse, high-need student population has long been the norm.

Weingarten toured the school with United Teachers of Dade president Karen Aronowitz; state affiliate president Andy Ford, who is also an AFT vice president; and newly elected Miami mayor Tomas Regalado, who made community schools a key plank in his campaign. All of the leaders emphasized the need to press a school improvement agenda that features community schools both locally and nationally.

At Toussaint L'Ouverture, the conversation focused on the fact that programs already offered by the city of Miami could be coordinated and offered through a community school model, so that people can find the services they need in their own neighborhoods. "I would like to work with the union and Miami-Dade Public Schools to develop a plan and pilot three community schools within the city of Miami," Regalado said.

During her visit to the district, Weingarten also participated in the grand opening of the UTD Professional Resource Center at Southridge High School. Housed in a traditional comprehensive high school, the resource center is one of the few union-run teacher centers in the nation where teachers and paraprofessionals will receive training and other support to develop their professional skills.

The new center reflects the fact that "great teaching just doesn't happen" without embedded support, Aronowitz explained. "Teachers need ongoing training and the opportunity to share ideas to strengthen their skills."

"Dade teachers want to continually hone their skills, and they know this will translate into student achievement," said Weingarten, who gave a major speech in Washington, D.C., last month in which she stressed ongoing professional support as a way to lift whole schools and school systems. What's going on in Dade, she added, mirrors what's happening around the country—a groundswell of teachers and paraprofessionals who are demanding opportunities for career growth and the chance to reclaim ownership of the profession. [Mike Rose, United Teachers of Dade, AFT public affairs department]

February 12, 2010