The Saturday morning session at the AFT’s convention focused on working together to make sure all children have opportunities to learn and thrive in environments that are safe, healthy and supportive–not political battlefields. Children’s caregivers and teachers are natural allies in this work. Delegates heard from National PTA Executive Director Nathan Monell on the work his organization is doing to build bridges between families and teachers, and from AFT President Randi Weingarten and community activists on the AFT’s new Powerful Partnerships Institute to support affiliates’ parent and community engagement programs.
Monell spoke plainly about the many challenges teachers and parents have faced in the last three years: the disruption, stresses, health and safety concerns brought about by the COVID-19 pandemic; culture wars over addressing racism and providing gender-affirming care for our children; attacks on our teachers and public school systems; and the trauma of school shootings and community violence. In spite of all this, “there is always hope,” Monell said, “but only if we act together to change the narrative and the reality.”
Some people seek to divide parents and teachers, Monell acknowledged, but we know better. PTA polls show that 89 percent of parents agree that families and teachers must work closely together. And 68 percent of parents “worry some or a lot about having politicians who are not educators making decisions about what happens in the classroom.” Parents overwhelmingly believe in their children’s public schools and in the quality and performance of their teachers. And voters more broadly support discussions of sex and sexuality, the teaching of honest history, and social and emotional learning in the classroom.
Monell described staying silent as a “luxury” and called on AFT members to “be reasonable, unbending advocates in this argumentative and divided world” by refusing to allow others to divide us or dictate the narrative and by engaging even with people who disagree. He invited everyone to become members of the PTA and encouraged them to join him in telling students and families, “You can count on me.”
Weingarten echoed those words and noted that victories for schools, teachers and students are not accidents or coincidences. “This doesn’t just happen by magic, and it doesn’t just happen by wishing. It happens because of real community partnerships,” she said. The goal of the Powerful Partnerships Institute is to support affiliates that are developing models for intentional and successful community engagement.
Weingarten was joined on the stage by two community activists, Suleika Soto, a parent organizer with Boston Education Justice Alliance, and Mohammad Muntakim, an organizing fellow with 482 Forward in Detroit. Soto shared about the alliance’s successful fight to keep Boston Public Schools under local control. Muntakim described partnering with teachers, the district and the Detroit Federation of Teachers in a three-year campaign that resulted in the Detroit Public Schools observing Eid al-Fitr (a Muslim holiday) for the first time in the 2021–22 school year.
Weingarten reinforced how important it is to support locals in building capacity to engage parents, students and communities and to organize together. “We want to build the muscle to do it because our communities need it, and … it’s up to us,” she said.
Locals interested in applying for parent and community engagement grants will be able to find resources at the AFT Parent Engagement Toolkit.