School visits show public school cooperation in action

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AFT President Randi Weingarten kicked off a series of 2017 back-to-school visits on Aug. 22 in high and hopeful fashion, visiting St. Tammany Parish, La., to help showcase the ways that strong public schools combine with strong public employee unions to promote a brighter future for the entire community.

Weingarten began the day by talking with educators, students and administrators at Fontainebleau High School, a St. Tammany public school with a growing reputation for robotics, welding and other exciting opportunities in career and technical education. Flanked by reporters, the AFT president visited programs around the school, including the ProStart culinary program (where she managed to pick up inside tips from students for making amazing jambalaya). She also visited physics teacher Amy Este, who explained how her class conducted a series of real-time measurements during the solar eclipse, charting a measurable drop in temperature.

Weingarten at food prep program in St. Tammany

Weingarten also visited the theater program and rounded out her tour with a stop in John O'Bryant's welding class. The job opportunities provided through the welding program are a major draw for Fontainebleau students: In just the last three years, O'Bryant has placed 16 students as welders with the local firm Excel USA.

What's happening in Fontainebleau "epitomizes a collaborative spirit to invest in kids and public education," Weingarten told reporters on the scene. And nowhere does that cooperative spirit loom larger than in a three-year contract that teachers and school employees ratified in June. "The union leadership and the district have worked hand in glove to improve well-being for kids and improve educators' capacity in this new contract," she said.

She was joined on the tour by Debbie Green, president of the St. Tammany Federation of Teachers and School Employees, and by Louisiana Federation of Teachers President Larry Carter, who is also an AFT vice president. As Carter told the New Orleans Advocate: "We realize [protecting public education] is not just state or local. It's national. It's all of us coming together. And with all the great things happening in this district at this particular time, we're really happy" about the cooperation.

Weingarten with St. Tammany elementary students

That afternoon, Weingarten stopped at nearby Magnolia Trace Elementary School to visit classrooms and spotlight the vital contribution of strong after-school programs at Magnolia Trace and schools like it around the country. A highlight of the visit was the school's outdoor classroom—complete with on-site digs to help fan students' interest in archeology.

Weingarten closed the day by meeting with officers and members of the St. Tammany Federation of Teachers and School Employees. The work underway in this community, she said, exemplifies what must be done to "reclaim the promise of democracy and public education" while resisting attacks on the institution through austerity, vouchers, privatization and schemes to weaken unions.

[Staff reports]