Town hall meetings give voice to community

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Every voice counts.

That's the mantra at a series of town hall-style meetings co-sponsored by AFT locals and their community partners in cities across the country.

The meetings are designed to generate ideas from the bottom up, and shape the local and national education discourse with the most authentic resource available: the voices of parents, teachers and students. Other participants include locally based neighborhood alliances, social justice advocates, social service providers and education scholars. These essential stakeholders help locals gain a deeper understanding of the issues most important to them, and strengthen everyone's ability to address those issues together.

Townhall Chicago

Chicago Townhall Meeting.

Photo credit: Simone Bonde

For example, at a Chicago Teachers Union-sponsored Education Summit in December, 25 years of mayoral control inspired a workshop focused on fighting for an elected school board. The overall event, which drew nearly 400 teachers, unionists, parents, students, neighborhood activists and policymakers, also covered school closings, charter schools, wraparound services, "test mania" and other locally relevant issues.

The AFT's ability to share a national perspective and strategies helps lift up local groups, said Albany Park Neighborhood Council's Raul Botello, who ran the Chicago event's youth organizing workshops. "We hope that this is the beginning of a movement to really strengthen that network of folks who are pushing an agenda that's equitable and just."

In St. Paul, Minn., a series of listening sessions have explored teaching, equity, testing culture, class size, technology updates, the enrichments students deserve, and more, all with a focus on shifting the paradigm to putting parents' voices at the center of education reform. Members of the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers, which has sponsored the sessions, are so committed to including parent voices that they intend to embed the issues in their contract where possible.

In Pittsburgh, the Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers and the Pennsylvania Interfaith Impact Network co-sponsored a town hall for about 200 people in November. "People need to know their voice is important," said parent Lenelle Reid, who helped facilitate discussions about parent and teacher priorities there. "That makes a huge difference."

Townhall St. PaulSt. Paul, MN, Townhall Meeting.Photo credit: Janet Hostetter

In Houston, town hall participants tackled school closings. "When you close down a school in a community, you close down a community," said Reginald Lillie, president of the Houston NAACP. To prevent that, the community must command the attention of legislators—with voters. "It's going to take multiple agencies," noted Lillie, who has invited AFT representatives to attend his education committee meetings. "It affects all of us: the whole city, the whole state, the whole country. Everybody has a stake in this."

Town hall events are being held in a dozen cities, including Cincinnati, Cleveland, Hillsborough County, Fla., Minneapolis, New Orleans, New York, Philadelphia and San Francisco. Representatives from each event will gather to synthesize participants' ideas, with an eye toward creating a set of national principles. In addition, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform is following the project and will produce a report to ensure all these voices are heard. [Virginia Myers]

December 12, 2012