Neighborhood by neighborhood, building by building, AFT members joined with parents, students and the community in 30 cities across the nation on Feb. 17 to hold an estimated 800 school "walk-ins"— bringing national attention to challenges facing public education and, equally important, to the community-generated, community-backed solutions and supports that could transform every public school into a building that every child deserves.
Gathering outside buildings before the national day of action began, school stakeholders from Los Angeles to Newark, N.J., rallied briefly. Then they walked into the schools together—a positive, hopeful act that signaled commitment, neighborhood solidarity and the power of collective action. Called "Walk-Ins for the Schools All Our Children Deserve," the events were coordinated by the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools. The AFT is part of this national coalition of organizations that are banding together for educational justice and equity, particularly in schools serving low-income and working-class communities and neighborhoods of color.
The walk-ins were the opening salvo in a national campaign to ensure that the country which launched public education as an essential feature of democratic society continues on that course. This requires a number of essentials. Among them: fully funded schools, accountability and transparency for charter schools and operators; and the tools, time and support that schools and students need—whatever their ZIP code.
— Bostonparent (@Hcinjp) February 17, 2016
"All across the country, people are speaking up for racial and economic justice; and a high-quality public education is key to both of those goals," said AFT President Randi Weingarten. "Today, we're walking in—parents, educators, students and communities—to demand that policymakers invest in public education. We demand rich curriculum, programs that support the whole student, multiple pathways to college and career, and a fair wage and voice on the job for educators and staff."
Broad, deep and wide
Weingarten participated in the walk-in at Alexander Hamilton High School in Los Angeles, one of the largest events in a day that featured 170 Los Angeles walk-ins coordinated by the United Teachers Los Angeles, which is affiliated with the AFT and the National Education Association. Also at Hamilton was the new Los Angeles Unified School District superintendent, Michelle King (a former Hamilton principal), and school board President Steve Zimmer.
The leaders joined about 200 students, teachers and school support staff, who lined the steps of Hamilton’s main entrance, carrying signs and banners calling for investment in public schools. "The students and the educators at Hamilton will tell the new superintendent and all of us that they don't have anywhere near the resources they need. But what they do have is a climate that loves children, that believes in children, and that believes neighborhood public schools have a real role to play in the United States of America—if we believe in democracy and that kids have a right to follow their dreams," Weingarten said. "That is why we are walking into schools all across America today. We need public education."
Hamilton junior Karen Calderon could not have agreed more. She talked about her pride in an impressive array of Hamilton programs—from video production to the adult school that is open to the entire community. Then she said, "We love our school, but we know it can be better. Our class sizes are way too large, averaging over 40 students per class. I ask that you invest more in our public schools."
UTLA developed the L.A. actions to galvanize community opposition to plans being pushed by the Broad Foundation to enroll more than 130,000 students in charter schools by 2023. It is part of an effort between Broad and Wal-Mart to privatize L.A. schools. The more than 20,000 people who joined the L.A. walk-ins were delivering a vital message, said UTLA President Alex Caputo-Pearl: "We are highlighting the great programs in public schools. We're highlighting the need for more investment in those programs. We're highlighting sustainable, neighborhood community schools. And we're highlighting the fact that, if billionaires want to be involved, they should not undermine programs; they should contribute their fair share in taxes."
Half a continent away, Chicago school walk-ins were equally effective tools for sparking a renewed commitment to public schools and forging an unbreakable neighborhood solidarity. Honks and chants echoed in the streets at more than 150 city schools. Parents, students, teachers and community activists gathered as early as 7 a.m., braving the morning chill to gather outside school buildings—a public demonstration of unity and support for their neighborhood schools. "This is our education," explained Evelyn Solis, a senior at Kelly High School. "Our future depends on the type of education we get right now."
Kelly High School is just one building struggling with budget cuts that have left the school with fewer extracurricular opportunities and fewer teachers. The Chicago Teachers Union currently is fighting for a fair contract at a time when the district is threatening schools with severe cuts and layoffs—moving to slice teachers' pay by 7 percent yet still accepting proposals for new charter schools. Against these misguided priorities, the Chicago walk-ins sent an unmistakable message that educators and families are united in their determination to have supported, high-quality neighborhood schools that provide nurses, wraparound services, small class sizes and a district budget solution that gives all schools the resources they need to do their best.
"Our walk-in was done to build unity in our building and community," said LaDwonda Hill, a Chicago Teachers Union leader at Ericson Elementary on Chicago's West Side. "Our staff members are feeling vulnerable because of the attacks on our job security, pensions, salaries, as well as the possible loss of our paraprofessionals," she said. "We rally today for resources that we need for our school: library, art, music, full time nurses and to receive the funding that we lost for our after-school programs."
— Madeline Talbott (@comorg312) February 17, 2016
Other cities also used the Feb. 17 walk-ins as a winning strategy for building communitywide commitment to public schools and solidarity across neighborhoods:
Saint Paul, Minn.
During its contract campaign two years ago, the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers organized walk-ins in support of a successful contract campaign. The actions gave members the high-road message—taking back our schools—and provided people with courage and confidence in their ability to pull off big collective actions. On Feb. 17, they put those lessons back to work again. Teachers and staff joined with parents, students and community allies in walk-ins at more than 50 sites, events that highlighted the need for continued progress in contract negotiations with Saint Paul Public Schools and member demands for community-driven solutions to address school climate.
Among the solutions highlighted were full implementation of restorative practices that foster a healthy school discipline climate and direct action that addresses racial equity gaps—action that starts with open dialogue involving the entire community. "Saint Paul students can't wait for schools that are fully staffed with teams of teachers and support staff working to create a climate where all students thrive," said Saint Paul Federation of Teachers Vice President Nick Faber. "This morning, our members sent a strong message to the district, parents and the broader community that they are organized and ready to take action on behalf of all Saint Paul students."
In Cincinnati, where more than 50 of the city’s 55 public schools joined the day of action. From Walnut Hills High to Woodford Elementary, spirits were high and the tone was constructive and upbeat—not surprising, since the district has become a nationally recognized leader in a community schools model known in the district as "community learning centers."
These schools feature not only challenging curriculums and high-quality instruction but also supports like positive discipline and services like vision testing, food banks as well as parent involvement in planning and decision-making. That requires buy-in—and it was on display even before the morning of the walk-in. In an op-ed piece, Cincinnati parent Sarah M. Stitzlein encouraged her neighbors to take part in the events: "Many people have been wagging their fingers at schools and teachers for decades now, but it's time to turn the finger on ourselves," the parent activist demanded. "Citizens have a responsibility to support public schools as a central institution of democracy."
"I'm proud to be a part of a movement that is working to reclaim the promise of public education and to celebrate the fantastic things that go on inside our public schools every day,” said Brad Smith, a social studies teacher at Walnut Hills who joined a huge crowd at the school walk-in. "I'm proud to be part of a movement that is helping to educate the public about why the narrative of failing public schools is a farce. Come visit your public schools and see the truth. A lot of great things are happening that state report cards refuse to acknowledge."
Boston schools were not in session, but that did nothing to dampen the city's enthusiasm for this historic day of action. Hundreds of parents, teachers and students rallied at City Hall and delivered a petition to the mayor demanding a stop to proposed budget cuts. They reassembled at the State House later that day with a similar message: The funding crunch, the result of a whopping $50 million budget shortfall that is still fluctuating as the budget process continues, has left many schools vulnerable. Buildings are considering deep cuts that could involve laying off teachers and librarians, dropping phys ed classes, losing art and music programs, and reducing the number of services available for students with special needs. The rallies sent a clear message: This is the wrong path for children, educators and schools.
"The Boston Teachers Union is proud to be part of a national movement that calls attention to the devastating effect that budget cuts have on the quality of services our schools provide," said Richard Stutman, president of the local and an AFT vice president. "While the poverty gap and the funding inequality have never been greater, it is incumbent that we call upon our elected leaders to step up and provide our public schools with the economic tools they need to provide a great education for all."
Challenging the status quo
Interest was also keen in Pittsburgh where six schools participated in the walk-ins, including Lincoln Elementary, where students organized a rally/walk-in for school safety. Pittsburgh Federation of Teachers members are advocating for community schools with services that ensure every student is prepared to learn. "We are really excited about the walk-ins in the city this morning," said PFT President Nina Esposito-Visgitis. "We know that every child in the Pittsburgh Public Schools deserves the best education possible, and that is why we are pushing for the community school model."
In Houston, events focused on community schools and the partnerships among educators, the school district, parents, and local nonprofits and social service agencies that can make these schools so successful. A rally at Kashmere High School (pictured above) showcased the building's new Success Center, an on-site facility that provides wraparound services for students and adults. Teachers, parents, community groups and students also gathered at Austin High School, where a rally and dinner were held to help spread information about community schools.
"The status quo in HISD [Houston Independent School District] just isn't working for many kids, parents or teachers," said Zeph Capo, president of the Houston Federation of Teachers. "These events are about coming together as a community to highlight the kinds of programs that can work for all kids, regardless of where they come from. We're also rallying to support teachers to do the work they are trained to do."
[Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools; AFT staff and affiliate reports]