From pre-K to college, back to school in Rhode Island

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It's back-to-school time for a wide swath of AFT members in Rhode Island, and AFT Secretary-Treasurer Lorretta Johnson greeted many of them on her Aug. 30-31 trip to Providence.

At Rhode Island College, she congratulated the full-time faculty union on its 50th anniversary and encouraged its sister unions of adjuncts and staff to persevere even in the face of national anti-union sentiment. She also visited education students there and met teachers at the preK-5 Henry Barnard Laboratory School (pictured below), where the RIC students benefit from having an elementary school right on their college campus. She even danced with second graders at Henry Barnard, then read to them as they gathered around on their circle time rug. And she cheered on an organizing meeting of graduate employees at Brown University.

Johnson and others at Henry Barnard Laboratory School

The tour was an opportunity to see AFT members in action and hear about their passions.

At Brown, graduate employees shared why they joined their brand-new union: They want fair treatment, healthcare benefits, a voice on the job and transparency from their administrators.

At Henry Barnard School, principal Jeannine Magliocco described the lab school concept: RIC education students observe in the classrooms, get hands-on experience co-teaching, and follow the research of the school's teachers, who are also considered faculty of RIC. The teachers and education students have a unique opportunity to get creative and test new strategies. For example, their "ocarina project" involved a history teacher describing the musical instrument's Mexican origin, an art teacher helping students craft ocarinas from clay, a technical education teacher creating another version on a 3-D printer, and a music teacher teaching students to play.

Praising the collaborative learning approach, Johnson told the faculty, "This lab school model is on the money. … We need more of these around the country."

Lorretta Johnson reading to kids

A visit to one of the education classes showcased a sensitivity to social justice that resonated with Johnson, as well. Demonstrating the concept of privilege, professor Joyce Stevos encouraged her students as they described how Christian (not Jewish or Muslim) holidays dominate school calendars, how white people typically earn more money than people of color and how people with disabilities have difficulty navigating their everyday environments.

RIC President Frank Sanchez joined Johnson during the class visit and chimed in during the lesson: "You can be a technically sound teacher," he said, "but without exposure to diversity" teachers cannot reach all their students. "What you're doing in this class on privilege and diversity is going to make you better teachers," said Johnson.

She also visited the RIC library, where librarian Marlene Lopes highlighted the ethnic history of the college and librarian Amy Barlow introduced Johnson to unionized staff who help students access all the college's resources.

A plaque for the union's 50th anniversary

All three AFT-affiliated RIC unions—full-time faculty, adjunct faculty, and staff—gathered at a reception to wrap up Johnson's visit. Rhode Island Federation of Teachers and Health Professionals President Frank Flynn, who is an AFT vice president, thanked the group for the opportunities they provide their students every day, by doing "more with less" and working through discouraging cuts to state higher education funds.

Johnson gave the full-time faculty union a plaque celebrating its 50th anniversary (pictured above). She also lauded the legislative win for Rhode Island Promise, a program that provides free tuition for the first two years of community college, and she promised that the AFT would continue to fight for free tuition for two final years at a four-year college like RIC. "One of the great things about our union is we don't give up," she said.

[Virginia Myers]