Sunday, May 17, 2015

Thank You

Cultural Anthropologist Margaret Mead’s words have been proven over and over to be true: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.”  Once again, a small group of citizens did just that this past weekend.  Of course, small is a relative term, because it took many people with a common vision to do what we were able to do on May 16th.  A group of teachers from the Kenmore Teachers Association (KTA) worked together with First Book, NEA, NYSUT, the Steelworkers Local 135, the Western New York Area Labor Federation and the Clean Air Coalition to do what many thought was impossible.  We put brand new free books into the hands of hundreds of children who would not have had access to these books any other way.  The smiles on the children’s faces said it all.  Some little ones even sat right down on the floor and started reading or looking at the pictures.  Teenagers hugged their books and smiled as they left. Teachers cried as they described how they couldn’t wait to get to school on Monday and give their students these books and how this would impact their classrooms.

Giving children books is a powerful tool in achieving authentic literacy. Learning to read is critical to a child’s success in school and in life.  A child without access to books won’t have the opportunity to become an engaged and capable reader.  This is the reality for so many children in our community.  Today, many parents work two jobs to make ends meet, so purchasing books is not a priority. Teachers know just how important it is for children to have books in their homes that they want to read. Partnering up with First Book was a natural extension of how teachers affect students beyond the classroom.  Partnering up with our local trade unions was an incredibly effective way to directly put books into the hands of kids.

At a time when the focus of education is heavily bent toward data and accountability, we have lost sight of the joy of watching children read and learn to love books.  It seems too that we have lost sight of the impact that our teachers and our organized labor forces have on our communities in Western New York.  We are fortunate to have such dedicated people who are able to work together for the betterment of neighborhoods and our children.

It is said that the devil is in the details, but I believe the beauty is in the details. Over the course of several months, this “small” project grew and took on a life of its own.  The combined effort to support literacy and to bring books to kids created a situation where our professional union worked with local trade unions and other groups of committed community organizers to make giving away over 5,000 books a reality.  I am in awe of these people and the capacity of organized labor. It was the structure and framework inherent in unions along with the networking capability and the belief in solidarity as an organization that made this possible.  Our communities depend on these efforts to be strong and viable.  Without our union members and our commitment to our neighborhoods and our districts, we lose more than we gain. Saturday was an example of the value of unions and how a “small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world”.  We changed the world of many children in a way that can’t be quantified. 

I want to thank everyone who was a part of making this happen: 

KTA Board Members and LAP team members: Peter Stuhlmiller, Elaine Altman, Cheryl Hughes, Joi Chimera, and Bill Conrad.  Without your support, your efforts and your belief that we could make this happen, I don’t know how we could have done this.  You are all my heroes.

Richard Lipsitz, President of the Western New York Area Labor Federation:  You have been a cheerleader for this project.  Thank you for your efforts to connect us to the Steelworkers and the Clean Air Coalition along with other area labor organizations.

Rebecca Newberry of the Clean Air Coalition:  You have also been a cheerleader for this project and have gone out of your way to help get the word out.  You are amazing and I am in awe.

Tom O’Shei, President of the Steelworkers Local 135 and the rest of the members:  Thank you for donating your people and your building to our project.  You all went above and beyond to make this a success. 

Leslie Getzinger from AFT and Katie Donlieve from First Book: You ladies are incredible and we are looking forward to continuing our work with you as we get the remaining 16,000 books into Western New York.

The Volunteers:  Kenmore West Rugby Club who helped unload the truck, Kara Zuccari, Penny DiPasquale, Shawn Bartel, Colleen Carney, Wesley Brown, Dan Dudley, Elaine Korczykowski, MaryLynn Bieron, Aiden Bieron, Lucinda Farrauto, Lynne Akin, Sharon Shultz, Kathy Reiser, Debbie Peters, Lisa Mitchell, Amy Grosofsky, Katie Wood, Tom Perryman, Becca Lambert, Grace Morrison, Jeanette Yoder, Mike Fiels, Eric Ridgeway, Elaine Smith, Cali Smith, Jerry Smith, Andrew Gianni, Tracy Spagnolo and many others whose names I missed:  You gave from your heart and worked so hard.  Words cannot express my gratitude.

Most importantly, my daughter Hannah and my husband Carl Falletta: you support me in so many ways.  Thank you for creating doing the Child Safe ID’s from the Erie County Sheriff’s Department for so many children today.  Thanks for being my biggest fans.  I love you both.

Friday, May 15, 2015

Public Education is a Right!

The following article is a post written by guest blogger Richard Lipsitz, president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation (WNY-ALF):

Public Education is a Right!

The education of ordinary people as a priority of this society has always played a part in economic development.  Historically public education moves an economy from one mode of production to another. The development of mass industrial production in the mid to late 19th century spurred the establishment of education as a civic responsibility, a public right and an individual legal obligation. The education of the population at large became universal.

 The transformation of the economy from one that was based on a rural/agricultural model to an urban industrial based one demanded new skills, new levels of literacy, and a new style of instruction. Literacy became the norm. In fact, an argument can be made that the level of literacy in the United States was higher by the early part of the 20th century than it is today. The exception to this rule was the Jim Crow, segregated education in the deep south, where African Americans were consciously left with a segregated and inferior system.

What has happened and what can be done to protect universal education and a high level of literacy? Further, what can be done to restore integrity and a sane discussion of the needs, modes and methods of educational policy? The primary point to be made is this: Education of the population must be considered an inviolable right for ordinary people. This is and has been a basic element of our social compact for well over 150 years, so there should really be no debate on this point. Unfortunately there is, and it comes from no less a figure than the leader of the “majority” faction of the Buffalo Board of Education. This individual is the key spokesperson in favor of dismantling public education in our region. In September of 2014, less than one year ago he said at an Erie County Community Enrichment meeting of the Erie County Legislature the following:

“The solution is going to lie in the disassembly of the Buffalo Public School system. And we‘re going to do that until people smarten up. We’re going to open charter schools, we’re going to hopefully help the privates and the Catholics to become better and be able to take more kids. We’re supporting the closing of a number of Buffalo Public Schools and turning them into charters, that’s the game we’re playing.”

It is clear this individual supports charter schools as the solution to the various vexed and difficult problems facing the Buffalo district. It is also important to note that the Buffalo district has similar problems to most urban core school districts, and these problems far exceed the simplistic solution given by the leader of the majority faction of the Buffalo Board. Make no mistake:  charter schools are not clearly defined public education and studies like the following one: “The Tip of the Iceberg: Charter Schools Vulnerabilities to Waste Fraud and Abuse”, by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools, report that charter schools are very prone to fraud and waste, that they lack transparency and ultimately fail in the majority of situations.

There is only one clear answer, and it is a hard one. Rebuild the system of public education as part of the rebirth of the Buffalo and Western New York economy. This is not a pipedream. About nine months ago a proposal was sent to the Buffalo Superintendent of Schools to revamp vocational education, and gear it to advanced manufacturing, new technologies and the medical corridor. While the intention of the proposal was sincere, the Majority faction of the Board has other goals in mind and any chance to make this innovation real is stymied by this circumstance.

It is a proven fact that Career and Technical Education has a 90% graduation rate. Voc-Ed programs can be a bridge between local businesses and schools creating opportunities for community partnerships through internships. So why would any consideration be given to dismantle that which works?

Now it’s the time to reintroduce such a proposal. Such a program can and should be done within the publicly funded and supported educational system. The training and preparation of young people for the jobs that are actually coming into existence is key. We should educate the diverse population of urban school districts to accomplish this goal, and we should start with Buffalo, now! Only those with motives that seek to destroy public education will stand in opposition.

Richard Lipsitz


Sunday, May 3, 2015

Oh the Irony

Irony is a literary term that is defined as “a state of affairs or an event that seems deliberately contrary to what one expects and is often amusing as a result.  Bearing that in mind, I find it ironic that NYSED is set to begin meeting on the issue of teacher evaluations during Teacher Appreciation Week.  Seriously.  This is no joke.  NYSED has already stacked the deck, as Peter Green writes about here.  Andrew Cuomo has set the deadline for June 30th, just 7 weeks from the first meeting of the panel, thus eliminating the 45 day commenting period.  To make this all the more insulting to parents and teachers across the state, the new system will have to be in place by November or districts will not receive state funding. 

That leaves parents and teachers just 4 days to get their comments in to NYSED to let them know how they feel about how teachers should be evaluated.  If the Governor gets his way, as he often does, then teachers will have 50% of their evaluations based on test scores.  What does this mean for our students?  It means that 100% of the school day, 100% of the school year, will be activities and lessons that are designed to prepare students for the test.  Think about that.  Since the tests are ELA and Math, that means that Science and Social Studies lessons will be limited, if non-existent. (or in educator speak “integrated”),  Music and Art and PE will all have “written projects with a reading and writing focus”, fine motor activities will be sidelined even more than they are now and time for recess and social skills opportunities will be lessened even more than they are now. 

As a parent, I want my children to have a well-rounded education.  I want them to love learning and to love to read.  I want them to have empathy, kindness, manners, and a whole host of other skills that cannot be tested or quantified.  I want them to be happy and successful in whatever way they define that to be when they grow up.  As a teacher, I want those same things for my “kids” a.k.a. my students, and it will break my heart even more than it does now to have to focus on those tests every day.

Parents and teachers, take some time this week, Teacher Appreciation week, and show your child’s teacher (and your colleagues) some love.  Write a letter, send an email, make a phone call to tell this group of so-called experts how important it is to stop using student test scores to evaluate teachers.  Tell them how important it is to have observations of teachers completed by principals and teachers, not “outside observers” who have no knowledge of the classrooms or the teacher being observed.  Tell them that it is time to stop the war on teachers and start respecting the people who are caring for and educating our children every day.  Tell them to tell the Governor to back off and keep his dirty fingers out of education and his grubby hands off the money that should be going into our public school system instead of into his friend’s pockets. 

It’s Teacher Appreciation Week.  Let’s appreciate our teachers.