10/07/2016

Walk-ins for public education draw 100,000 people

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From California to New York, 100,000 people in more than 200 cities took part in the latest—and by far the largest to date—day of "walk-ins" to promote educational opportunity so that every child can attend a high-quality public school or university. At most events, supporters gathered outside their schools in the morning and engaged the community in dialogue, and then, in a show of strength and common purpose, parents, students and educators walked into the schools together.

The events were sponsored by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, a broad coalition of more than 100 community and labor organizations that includes the AFT, with the overall message of fighting for the public schools all students deserve. The events were as varied as the communities that organized them. Advocating for public education as the gateway to racial and economic justice, local educators, parents, elected officials and community members highlighted a range of local issues: school closings, budget cuts, key education-related ballot measures and races, excessive testing and much more. (This full-page ad, which appeared in the New York Times and Washington Post, outlines an agenda that puts public education as the key to creating opportunity and economic and racial justice. It also includes a list of participating walk-in locations.)

For the first time this year, higher education was included in the walk-in action, and hundreds of AFT faculty and staff mobilized with rallies, protests, social media campaigns and more. While each local framed the issue most relevant to its own students, faculty and staff, the overall message was the same: Make high-quality public higher education accessible and sustainable for everyone.

Tim Kaine and Randi Weingarten in Philly

"It's time to listen to the people closest to our kids," AFT President Randi Weingarten says. "Parents, educators and community partners—the people who know our children's names, their strengths, their challenges and their dreams—are walking into their schools today to call for the public schools each and every student deserves."

With so many locations, it's impossible to recap them all, but here are just a few of the highlights. Check out #ReclaimOurSchools on Twitter for an amazing collection of photos and other updates.

Philadelphia was host to one of the day's signature events, a school walk-in at Spring Garden School where Sen. Tim Kaine, the Democratic Party's nominee for vice president, joined national and local AFT leaders and the school community in a show of support for the teaching and learning that takes place inside this K-8 building—and in public schools across the nation.

The "nationwide walk-in is a really important tribute to you and to our educators, to all who support our schools," Kaine told the crowd. "With Hillary Clinton as president, you're going to have a great friend in the White House" and a genuine opportunity "to educate kids for the future, not the past," through expanded early childhood education, robust career and technical education, and student-engaging computer science instruction in every school. That's a stark contrast, he reminded the crowd, to what Donald Trump is aiming for—a $20 billion block grant that would blow a 50 percent hole in public school funding, shifting the dollars into charter schools and vouchers.

Joining Kaine at the walk-in were Weingarten and Philadelphia Federation of Teachers President and AFT Vice President Jerry Jordan. "Every day, educators, school staff, parents and communities come together at schools like Spring Garden to give kids a fair shot to pursue their dreams, but we can't do it with spit and glue," said Weingarten. "Unfortunately, far too many schools still don't have the resources to give kids that chance."

Those chances should never be squandered, student Kyla Seawright reminded the crowd. The eighth-grade honor roll student drew loud applause just before the walk-in, when she told the Spring Garden crowd how a highlight of each day were the hours that she spent with a "kindhearted staff [that] takes the time to educate children and prepare us for our bright futures."

A school band in Chicago

Walk-in participation was strong across Illinois, where more than 40 locals affiliated with the AFT and Illinois Federation of Teachers took part in the event, up from four in the first nationwide walk-in earlier this year. There was districtwide participation in Kankakee; and in Granite City, AFT members joined with partners and local officials to call out both school closings and the shuttering of a local steel plant—a clear message that community job losses affect already inadequate funding for schools. Also making another strong showing in this round of walk-ins were Chicago Teachers Union members and public school communities across the city. These events show "we're really fighting for equitable funding—so that our students get the programing they deserve, so that we don't have to have cuts to teacher positions, so that they can have art and they can have sports," teacher Ramona Richards told the local ABC news station.

Planting a garden in Houston

In Houston, the walk-ins showcased the need for funding and support that gives teachers the tools, time and latitude necessary to deliver a high-quality public education for all students. Members of the Houston Federation of Teachers stood shoulder to shoulder with parents, students, officials and other partners at four schools, including Sam Houston High School and Yates High School, where this strong public show of support for the school was followed later in the day with "the start of a continuing conversation on how to bring the community school model to the building," reports Lauren Simmons, a Yates alumna and HFT building representative.

In Washington, D.C., the Ketcham Elementary School community was joined by AFT Executive Vice President Mary Cathryn Ricker, Washington Teachers' Union President Elizabeth Davis and local elected officials for an event celebrating tremendous recent improvement in academic performance and climate at a school that serves some of Washington, D.C.'s neediest students. It shows "what can happen when teachers, parents, administrators and the community collaborate," Davis said. The Ketcham story, added Ricker, illustrates that "what's needed is equity. Every child needs good teachers, nurses, social workers and other essential school staff."

Mary Cathryn Ricker at Washington, D.C., event

Hundreds of schools across New York state and New York City took part in walk-ins before school. One of the more emotional events took place in a school in the evening in Hoosick Falls, a town of about 3,500 near the Finger Lakes. There, a group of four mothers from Flint, Mich., came to the local community to help citizens deal with their poisoned water—something the Michigan mothers know all too much about. While Flint continues to deal with lead in its drinking water, Hoosick Falls' wells are contaminated with perfluorooctanoic acid, or PFOA. At a panel discussion, both groups shared their stories of how contaminated drinking water has damaged their health and that of their children, and how they are working to hold corporations accountable for the contamination. In Hoosick Falls, the suspected source of the PFOA is a local plastics plant. "It makes me feel angry because nobody deserves that, no matter where you're from," said Flint resident LaShaya Darisaw. "Everybody should have access to clean water." She noted that it takes 46 bottles of water just to wash the average person's hair.

A sign from Toledo

There was nearly wall-to-wall participation in Toledo, Ohio, schools, where walk-ins helped communities send a compelling message about the need to shift the education climate from test-and-punish to one that reflects and promotes real opportunities for rich learning and teaching. Congress gave Ohio and other states that chance when it scrubbed the No Child Left Behind Act and replaced it with the Every Student Succeeds Act, NCLB's successor law, and "we want parents, neighbors, everybody in the community to understand what ESSA is," Longfellow Elementary School teacher Sandra McGovern explained to reporters at her school's walk-in. In Toledo and across the state, "we want everybody's input so that we have good measures" tied to the new law.

Massachusetts, a state where education issues will factor big on the 2016 ballot, was a hotbed of participation. From Boston to Springfield, communities delivered a wall-to-wall show of support for well-resourced public schools in an event that couldn't have come at a better time. Next month, a growing grass-roots coalition of education, parent, student and community groups is gearing up to defeat a ballot question that would lift the cap on privately run, publicly funded charter schools in the state—putting funding in the crosshairs for everything from strong pre-K programs to high school enrichment. Nicole Perryman, a parent at Boston's Madison Park High School, says that if the governor and legislators would fully fund all public schools, there would be no need to open more charter schools. "The creation of new schools will not close the achievement gap. An equitable quality education will, and that will not happen until all public education receives full funding at the state and local level."

Kids in Meriden, Conn.

There was enthusiasm and broad participation in Meriden, Conn., where all 12 district schools took part in walk-ins and highlighted the system's rich history of fostering collaboration among all public school stakeholders and sending a powerful message often heard in the schools: "Here, students succeed." Educators, classroom support personnel, parents and students spoke at schools about how working together is building success in the schools. Strong, equitable state funding for schools was among the other issues highlighted in Connecticut. "It goes beyond basically sort of leveling the playing field because our kids do need more," New Britain biology teacher Sal Escobales told reporters. Across the state, successful walk-in events also took place in Ansonia, Hartford, Manchester, Middletown, New Haven, Vernon, Waterbury, West Haven and Windham.

In dozens of schools in Los Angeles, hundreds of parents, educators and students walked the neighborhoods surrounding their campuses to knock on doors and talk to people about their local school and two key measures on the November ballot that will strengthen public education. These walks involved conversations with community members about what people like about their school and what they feel it would take to make it a true "community school." Walkers also talked about the urgent need to pass Proposition 55 to prevent up to $4 billion in state education cuts and to approve Proposition 58 to expand language learning opportunities for all students.

Higher education. In San Francisco, AFT 2121 members used art, poetry and rap at a rally to promote Proposition W, a ballot item that would help fund free college by increasing the transfer tax in property sold for more than $5 million. In New York City, members of the Professional Staff Congress posted numerous photos on social media cataloguing their crumbling college buildings in a plea for funding. Rutgers AAUP-AFT and Texas AFT college locals held student debt clinics for members and students struggling with the cost of college; Rutgers members also spoke at a state hearing to advocate for adjunct faculty rights. And in Illinois, faculty organized a postcard blitz demanding funding from their state legislators and helped students register to vote. (Read more about the higher education events.)

[Staff and news reports]