Through basic training, 'the General' turns paras into leaders

Paraprofessional leadership program builds an army of educators

EVEN MONTHS LATER, Kris Schwarzkopf still gets choked up remembering the night this spring she was awarded the highest honor an AFT PSRP leader can receive: the Albert Shanker Pioneer Award.

“I’m still not over it. Shocked. Surprised. Honored that I was chosen,” she says, and then, with a touch of mischievousness, adds: “First time in my life that I was speechless.”

She isn’t kidding. Known as “the General” (after the Gulf War general with the same last name), the paraprofessional leader in the Toledo Federation of Teachers is legendary for her political organizing in Ohio, a crucial swing state. The political victory she takes most delight in is the 2011 defeat of infamous right-to-work bill S.B. 5, the handiwork of Ohio Gov. John Kasich.

“One of his threats to us was: ‘You either get on the bus, or I’ll run you over with the bus,’ ” she says. “We remember that.”

As great as that victory was, Schwarzkopf’s singular achievement may be in creating the TFT Paraprofessional Leader Program four years ago, modeled on the AFT’s Teacher Leaders Program. The program convenes para leaders one Saturday per month from January through May, with each enrollee receiving a $500 stipend.

It has three main components: basic training in leadership, a political piece (this spring, participants phone-banked for presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, who won the Ohio Democratic primary), and a project, such as anti-bullying strategies, that participants develop into a workshop.
This year, the whole group chose one project, a First Book giveaway planned for this summer. So far, the paras have raised well over their $3,000 book-buying target, including a big donation from the Greater Northwest Ohio AFL-CIO.

Schwarzkopf hopes the nine para leaders currently in the program become friends, and that she’ll be able to call on them to take bigger leadership roles over time.

“You know,” she says, “the AFT has a saying: Turn members into activists, and activists into leaders.”

She has a new project, too: converting fair share payers into union members. The TFT para unit used to have more than 50 fee payers in a unit of 417. That number is now down to 20, “and I’m not giving up yet.”

Schwarzkopf received the Pioneer Award at the 2016 PSRP conference. Click here for a full account.

PSRP Reporter, Summer 2016
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2016 PSRP award winners

Child Welfare and Community Service Helping Hands Award

  • Springfield (Mass.) Federation of Paraprofessionals

Children’s Literacy Award

  • Robbinsdale (Minn.) Federation of Teachers

Defender of the Public Service Award

  • Education Minnesota Osseo Educational Support Professionals
  • Jefferson County (Ala.) AFT
  • Portland (Ore.) Federation of School Professionals

Dorothea Bell Political Action Award

  • New York State United Teachers

PSRP Professionalism Award

  • Karen Riggleman, Jefferson (La.) Federation of Teachers

Talking Union Award

  • Genia Scott, Berkeley (Calif.) Council of Classified Employees
  • Tina Solórzano Fletcher, AFT Guild,   San Diego Community College District

Union Building Award

  • United Federation of Teachers, New York City
  • Lawndale (Calif.) Federation of Classified Employees
  • Baldwinsville (N.Y.) Educational Support Professionals Association

Union Helping Hands Award

  • Albuquerque (N.M.) Educational Assistants Association
  • Juneau (Alaska) Education Support Staff

Workers’ Memorial Day Award

  • Oregon School Employees Association