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Thumbs-up for support staff

Colorado kids already were among the fittest folks in America when a handful of school food service workers decided to make a good situation better. Shortly after merging with the paraprofessionals union last fall, school food workers in the Denver Federation for Paraprofessionals and Nutrition Service Employees noticed that teachers, but not classified staff, could enhance their wages through a pay-for-performance system of training and advancement. The food workers wanted in on the action. They had reached the top of their pay steps, hadn't had a cost-of-living adjustment for three years and saw a need for training in how to prepare fresh foods.

So, the food workers approached the district with an incentive-pay program that would promote wellness and fight obesity. They got a good reception—and will be supported in designing the program by a grant from the AFT Innovation Fund.

"This is a partnership. We worked as a team," says local union president Bernie Jiron. Already, the workers have taken a summer class and switched to making all their meals from scratch.

"Everything is low-fat; we're not doing any more processed food," says Geraldine Atencio, a union member and multisite manager. Students accustomed to a fast-food diet weren't keen on the changes at first, she says. Now they've seen the light. School lunch participation is up, and the kids' favorite dishes include a black bean tortilla casserole, vegetarian chili, and sloppy joes made from grass-fed beef on homemade buns. The pilot program will include a salad bar at every school and fruit at every break.

"I can't wait to get back to work this fall," Atencio says. "I'll have all my fresh fruits and fresh veggies there."

Colorado is not the only place where PSRPs are shaking things up. The West Virginia School Service Personnel Association and AFT-West Virginia will use their Innovation Fund grant to turn two low-income schools in Charleston—an elementary school and a middle school—into community hubs that will house all kinds of social services. The two AFT unions will collaborate with several other partners, including the faith-based Hope Community Development Group and the Elks Club, to address outside-the-classroom concerns that can interfere with children's academic achievement.

The awards in Colorado and West Virginia are part of the latest round of AFT Innovation Fund grants, totaling $800,000 this year, to support union-led efforts to develop models for more effective teaching and learning. AFT St. Louis will create a professional development program for early childhood educators. The Chicago Teachers Union and the Albuquerque Teachers Federation will create lessons and materials aligned to the new Common Core State Standards for English language arts and mathematics, now adopted by 46 states and the District of Columbia.

Reprinted from the September/October 2011 issue of PSRP Reporter.