School Support Staff Bring Fresh Hopes for New School Year

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AFT members rolled back to school in the state of Washington by filing union cards, strengthening their programs and welcoming AFT executive vice president Lorretta Johnson to several schools in Seattle and Tacoma as part of a coast-to-coast tour.

On her first day in Seattle, Sept. 1, Johnson met with Head Start workers from the Washington State Migrant Council who filed cards with the National Labor Relations Board seeking an election for union representation.

Tahoma school signers

Paul Bert (right), interpreter at Mount Tahoma High School, signs for deaf students in the anatomy/physiology class of teacher Madeline Merriman.


Mount Tahoma High School in Tacoma was the first stop the next morning. There, a magnet program places deaf students in classes with other students in a wide range of courses. Johnson sampled two classes, one in automotive shop and the other in human anatomy and physiology.

In the auto shop class, sign language interpreter Amy Twomey signs all the lessons, from "regenerative braking" to "piston displacement." As teacher Tim Kelly reviewed math problems pertaining to cars, Twomey translated every detail into American Sign Language: “In a six-cylinder car, the piston displacement of one cylinder is 38.667 cubic inches. What is the total piston displacement for the engine of this car?” Twomey, a member of the Tacoma Federation of ParaEducators, also translates the give-and-take of problem solving as students work under cars on lifts. “The professional way you do this makes all the difference,” Johnson told her.

Ginger Ott

Custodian Ginger Ott teaches kindergarten students at Scenic Hill ES how to recycle their leftovers and trash at the end of lunch.


At Scenic Hill Elementary School in Kent, head custodian Ginger Ott described her award-winning recycling program, where students started with simple recycling at lunchtime, and then moved on to conserving energy and water, growing worms for composting, and joining community groups such as the Kiwanis and the Boy Scouts on outings to pick up litter and debris. Some patrol the halls looking for lights to turn off in empty classrooms. The older students teach younger ones how to recycle. The K-6 school's initiatives fall right in line with an AFT resolution promoting union involvement in local sustainability programs, green building maintenance and environmental education.

This is no privileged school, either. There may be 15 or 16 languages represented in a single classroom, the vast majority of students get free lunches, and many of the new immigrants have never attended school at all. More than a few have never seen a flush toilet.

Still, once the students understand how to recycle, they take over. This year, they came back from summer vacation still recycling. “It's their project. It's fun,” said Ott, a member of AFT Kent Classified Employees. “The kindergarteners really catch on. My first kindergarteners are now third-graders, and they don't know any other way.”

Lorretta Johnson

Lorretta Johnson high fives with a student on the green team at Scenic Hill Elementary School as Lee Vargas looks on.


Johnson joined school superintendent Edward Lee Vargas, a former AFT member, in giving high-fives all around to the Scenic Hill Green Team. Aside from hitting the highest benchmarks in the county for their recycling, the team won a new greenhouse and gardening supplies in a statewide contest. “Now,” Ott said, “we just have to learn more about plants.”

Johnson next held a working lunch with AFT members employed as professional staff at Seattle Community College. They swapped strategies for handling funding cuts and political challenges, as well as stories of their successes in community engagement.

Community Day Center for Children

Lois Martin (standing at right), director of the Community Day Center for Children, speaks to a packed crowd of teachers and AFT members.


The last stop of the day was with early childhood educators at the Community Day Center for Children in Seattle, to talk about Washington state’s application for a federal Race to the Top early learning grant. A successful application could mean as much as $60 million in fresh resources for early childhood programs across the state. Center director and AFT master trainer Lois Martin expressed the need for funding as a formula: “Well-compensated teachers + involved parents x government support = quality early learning.” Center staffers agreed. They proudly showed off their spiffy classrooms and their most successful methods in early literacy.

“You've got a voice in me for early childhood education,” Johnson assured them. “You can count on that.”

The group also explored pursuing long-term strategies for professional development, including programs that consolidate educators' existing credentials and apply them toward degrees in higher education, and career ladder programs that underwrite the cost of a college education.

For stories and photos of the “Making a Difference Every Day” tour, visit www.aft.org/difference. Back-to-school visits are in Charleston and McDowell County, W.Va.; Palm Beach County, Fla.; Hartford, Conn.; Tacoma and Seattle, Wash.; Detroit; Austin, Texas; and Long Island, N.Y. [Annette Licitra/photos by Ellen Banner]

 September 3, 2011

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