First Person

Week of Nov. 1: Healthy schools highlights

Nov. 15 deadline to apply for a free salad bar at your child’s school

EdNews Parent expert and  the head of the Boulder Valley School District’s nutrition services department sent out an urgent plea for help spreading the word last week, noting that Nov. 15 is the deadline for schools to apply for a a free healthy salad bar kit through the Salad Bar Project. Schools can apply for the salad bar through a partnership with Whole Foods Market, whose shoppers raised more than $1.4 million to fund salad bars in schools across the country. It is so easy to apply – schools just click here.

GOCO funds lead to another great playground

Lumberg Elementary School hasn’t had a playground to call its own for the past three months, until now.  Drive past the school and now you will see students playing on a colorful new playground. The project was made possible through a grant from Great Outdoors Colorado (GOCO), the City of Edgewater Parks and Recreation and Jefferson County.

Even though the school is right across the street from recreation areas at Sloan’s Lake Park, it is just too dangerous for students to cross Sheridan to access the playgrounds.

Students, parents and the surrounding community are excited about the new space that shines with bright colors, 40 different kinds of activities, slides, bridges and signs to help students learn sign language. The school’s old playground dated back to the ‘70s. The Nov. 11 ribbon cutting was cancelled due to inclement weather.

Boulder Valley elementary school wins Walk to School Challenge

Green Works logo Heatherwood Elementary School won first place in the nation in the Clorox Green Works Walk to School Challenge. This contest, sponsored by Clorox Green Works, the Sierra Club and Safe Routes to School, challenged elementary and middle schools across the nation to earn points by clocking their walks during October, which is National Walk to School Month.

Heatherwood ended up on top with 138 families, including 200 parents and 234 children, walking a total of 119,100 minutes, which equated to 5,270 miles (or nearly the distance from Los Angeles to New York and back). Heatherwood will be awarded with a $5,000 green grant for their efforts.

The school won – despite mountain lion sightings, smoke from wildfires and a lot of road construction thanks to the Walk and Roll Program launched two years ago at the school by a group of parent volunteers. Parents noticed that, although most students at Heatherwood live within 2 miles of the school, walking and riding bikes to school was not very common. Parent volunteers started organizing crossing guards on 75th Street, a rural highway filled with busy commuters that bisects the attendance area of the school. Heatherwood is now happy to report that construction of a new pedestrian crossing zone on 75th Street is under way, funded by Safe Routes to School.

Heatherwood also developed a program in which kids are acknowledged after walking or rolling 5, 30 and 100 days to school. Also, each fall and spring of the last two years, the school has put on a Walk and Roll Week in which families have been greeted with healthy snacks each morning for walking and biking to school. The weeks were capped off by an all-school assembly with smoothies donated by Boulder’s RUSH and a bike was raffled off to participants. Heatherwood also participated in International Walk to School Day on Oct. 6 in conjunction with the Shoot for the Moon promotion organized by BVSD.

Students from three Denver high schools cook for a good cause

LiveWell Colorado, a nonprofit organization committed to reducing and preventing obesity in Colorado, announced that students from three Denver public high schools will compete in the first EatWell@School Culinary Competition taking place at Johnson & Wales University at 5:30 p.m. on Friday, Nov. 19.

The competition is part of a unique nine-week after-school program that teaches students basic culinary skills and nutritional education to prepare them for a lifetime of healthy cooking habits. As the culminating event of the program, the competition will challenge students to create a delicious, nutritious and affordable school lunch that meets the same criteria as a public school lunch in terms of following USDA guidelines, procurement standards and budget limitations.

The winning meal will be served at LiveWell Colorado’s inaugural fundraiser on Wednesday, Dec. 8, where the students will be recognized for their accomplishment.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.

First Person

I was an attorney representing school districts in contract talks. Here’s why I hope the Supreme Court doesn’t weaken teachers unions.

PHOTO: Creative Commons / supermac1961

Many so-called education reformers argue that collective bargaining — and unions — are obstacles to real change in education. It’s common to hear assertions about how “restrictive” contracts and “recalcitrant” unions put adult interests over children’s.

The underlying message: if union power were minimized and collective bargaining rights weakened or eliminated, school leaders would be able to enact sweeping changes that could disrupt public education’s status quo.

Those that subscribe to this view are eagerly awaiting the Supreme Court’s decision in the case of Janus v. American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees. At issue is the constitutionality of “agency” or “fair share” fees — employee payroll deductions that go to local unions, meant to cover the costs of negotiating and implementing a bargaining agreement.

In states that permit agency fees (there are about 20), a teacher may decline to be part of a union but must still pay those fees. If the Supreme Court rules that those agency fees are unconstitutional, and many teachers do not voluntarily pay, local unions will be deprived of resources needed to negotiate and enforce bargaining agreements.

Based on my experience as an attorney representing school districts in bargaining and contract issues, I have this to say to those hoping the Court will strike down these fees: be careful what you wish for.

Eliminating fair share fees (and trying to weaken unions) represents a misguided assumption about bargaining — that the process weakens school quality. To the contrary, strong relationships with unions, built through negotiations, can help create the conditions for student and school success. Indeed, in my experience, the best superintendents and school boards seized bargaining as an opportunity to advance their agenda, and engaged unions as partners whenever possible.

Why, and how, can this work? For one, the process of negotiations provides a forum for school leaders and teachers to hear one another’s concerns and goals. In my experience, this is most effective in districts that adopt “interest-based bargaining,” which encourages problem-solving as starting point for discussions as opposed to viewing bargaining as a zero-sum game.

Interest-based bargaining begins with both sides listing their major concerns and brainstorming solutions. The touchstone for a solution to be adopted in a bargaining agreement: Is the proposal in the best interests of children? This important question, if embedded in the process, forces both sides to carefully consider their shared mission.

For example, some districts I worked with paid teachers less than comparable neighboring districts did. It would have been unreasonable for unions to insist that their pay be increased enough to even that difference out, because that would mean reducing investments in other items of importance to children, like technology or infrastructure. At the same time, it would have been untenable for management to play “hard ball” and deny the problem, because to do so would likely lead to a disgruntled workforce.

Instead, both sides were forced to “own” the issue and collaboratively craft plausible solutions. That made unions more agreeable to proposals that demonstrated some commitment by the district to addressing the issue of pay, and districts open to other things that they could provide without breaking the budget (like more early release days for professional development).

To be sure, many school administrators could get frustrated with the process of bargaining or having to consult the negotiated agreement when they want to make a change. Some districts would very much like to adopt an extended school day, for example, but they know that they must first consult and negotiate such an idea with the union.

Yet, in districts where school administrators had built a reservoir of goodwill through collective bargaining, disagreement does not come at the cost of operating schools efficiently. Both sides come to recognize that while they inevitably will disagree on some things, they can also seek agreement — and often do on high-stakes matters, like teacher evaluations.

How does this relate to the Supreme Court’s pending decision? Without fees from some teachers, unions may lack the resources to ensure that contract negotiations and enforcement are robust and done well. This could create a vicious cycle: teachers who voluntarily pay fees for bargaining in a post-Janus world, assuming the court rules against the unions, will view such payments as not delivering any return on investment. In turn, they will stop contributing voluntarily, further degrading the quality of the union’s services.

Even more troubling, if fair share fees are prohibited, resentment and internal strife will arise between those who continue to pay the fees and those who refuse. This would undercut a primary benefit of bargaining — labor peace and a sense of shared purpose.

Speaking as a parent, this raises a serious concern: who wants to send their child to a school where there is an undercurrent of bitterness between teachers and administrators that will certainly carry over into the classroom?

It is easy to see the appeal of those opposing agency fees. No one wants to see more money going out of their paycheck. The union-as-bogeyman mentality is pervasive. Moreover, in my experience, some teachers (especially the newer ones) do not recognize the hidden benefits to bargaining contracts.

But, obvious or not, agency fees help promote a stable workplace that allows teachers to concentrate on their primary responsibility: their students. Removing the key ingredient threatens this balance.

Mark Paige is a former school teacher and school law attorney who represented school districts in New England. He is currently an associate professor of public policy at the University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth.