NEA President Dennis Van Roekel Kicks off American Education Week

By Anita Merina

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel travelled to Washington State to kick off the 92nd year of American Education Week, celebrating and honoring the hard work of public school educators and students.

Joined by Washington Education Association President Kim Mead, President Van Roekel embarked on a whirlwind day of visits that not only showcased the staff-led, student-centered transformation of school recipients of federal School Improvement Grants (SIG) but also demonstrated what will be lost as SIG funding ends.

Each school received a banner from WEA and NEA celebrating the school as a high performing Priority School as well as a $500 check from the NEA for the school library.

“We are so honored to be part of the kickoff of American Education Week, because these schools show what can happen when the union works with the school and district, the educators work as a team, and the community is included in the effort to meet the needs of every student,” says Mead.

For Van Roekel, the national kickoff and AEW tour was about collecting the stories of members who were transforming schools to meet the needs of their students and the challenges they faced. “These are the stories I will take on the road with me.”

The day began in Marysville with a visit to Totem Middle School where they were greeted by Marysville Education Association President Arden Watson and joined by State Rep. John McCoy and Superintendent Becky Berg.

McCoy, a Tulalip tribal leader praised the work of the school staff and urged staff to talk to their legislators. “We must fully fund education,” said McCoy, a point echoed by Marysville Superintendent Becky Berg.  “Your schools demonstrate what happens when we add funding to the already rich creative ideas staff have to help all students succeed.”

The middle school used its federal dollars to increase professional development, adding an extra 45 minutes per day to personal-planning time. Staff also extended student-learning time by 30 minutes. This winning combination boosted the number of 8th-grade students successfully passing Algebra 1 from 12 to nearly 90 percent!

The tour moved on to Tulalip Quil Ceda Elementary Schools where students at the combined school welcomed AEW visitors into their daily Native American ritual of celebrating each day of learning through a drumming ceremony. “We are proud of our school’s full integration of our native culture into the school culture,” says Chelsea Craig, teacher and cultural specialist at Tulalip Quil Ceda. “Students no longer have to check their identity at the schoolhouse door. They feel welcomed and nurtured at the school and this extends to their learning as well.”

At Hawthorne Elementary School in Seattle, Van Roekel and Mead were joined by Seattle Education Association President Jonathan Knapp and state representatives Sandra Tomiko Santos and Jonathan Fitzgibbons, who toured the school, visited classes and attended a rousing assembly with Hawthorne students.  Hawthorne staff also shared their stories.

Educators here were given the autonomy to shape their teaching environment and address the needs of their students. The results: the school has added more than a 100 students to its enrollment, doubled its test scores, and supported critical wraparound services to students and their families, including vouchers for food and housing, and assistance with domestic violence, homelessness and unemployment programs.

Kelly Aramaki, Executive Director of Schools for the Southeast Region, Seattle Public Schools, who joined Van Roekel and Mead at Hawthorne, praised the work of the school staff and the union, and urged ongoing support for the transformation begun by the Washington schools, “I often compare the hard work of this transformation to bamboo,” says Aramaki. “It takes time to get established but once it does, it sends out the strong roots of change and grows and soars to new heights. That’s what you’re doing here.”