Unions Give Back: NEA Members Revitalize Two Denver Schools

What takes 53 pieces of furniture, 40 gallons of paint, 50 square feet of pavers and more fun than can be calculated? Outreach to Teach!

Since its inception 19 years ago, Outreach to Teach, sponsored by the National Education Association Student Program, has become an annual community service celebration that brings NEA members together to give back to local communities.

Photo: NEA Today/ Calvin Knight

“It feels so good to help a school in such a concrete way,” said David Tjaden, chair of the NEA Student Program. “At the end of the day, we have visible proof of our efforts. We know our time was well spent because we really do believe that every student has a right to attend a public school that is clean, safe, inviting and up-to-date.”

This year, some 400 NEA members – current, future and retired teachers; higher education faculty; and education support professionals – put in a full day and lots of sweat equity to spruce up Denver’s Mathematics and Science Leadership Academy (MSLA), one of NEA’s Priority Schools. Nearby Valverde Elementary School also received a facelift.

The reason for all of this? “Ensuring every child’s basic right to a great public school starts with providing students with an environment that is conducive to learning,” said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel.

NEA President Dennis Van Roekel is greeted by Denver Classroom Teachers Association President Henry Roman, Lynne Lopez-Crowley and Ruth Ocon-Neri, the two lead teachers at the Math & Science Leadership Academy.

MSLA is a teacher-led school in west Denver with the motto, “Everyone in this school is a learner, a teacher and a leader.” The school doesn’t have traditional school administrators like a principal. Instead, all the decisions — from the length of the school day to the color of the chairs — rest with the teachers, who openly collaborate with school support staff, parents and students to drive the direction of learning. Seventy percent of MSLA’s student body are English-language learners and 95 percent are eligible for free or reduced-price lunch. As Colorado Education Association President Kerrie Dallman said while welcoming the volunteers to MSLA, “This community is so deserving and it’s great to get this support.”

The projects this year ranged from sprucing up bathrooms, to building raised beds for vegetable gardens and painting a beautiful outdoor mural. And to thank all the hardworking educators at MSLA, new furniture was set up in the teacher’s lounge.

Photo: NEA Today / Calvin Knight

Prior to leaving for the summer, students at MSLA were offered a leadership opportunity to decide what projects would be tackled during Outreach to Teach. “They will be so excited to see everything when they come back to school,” said Kim Ursetta, a bilingual kindergarten teacher at the school.

And almost as meaningful as giving back to the community while visiting are the intergenerational relationships that are built at Outreach to Teach. The NEA Student Program members gain valuable advice as they work along side NEA-Retired members.

“Our mentors are our retired members, they can provide us great leadership,” said Tiffany Warrior, a NEA Student Program member from Georgia. What’s one retiree tip that has resonated with Warrior? “That every student can learn.”

The NEA-Retired members also benefit from being around the NEA Student Program members. They bring “the youth and energy out of the retirees,” said Jean Stephenson a retired educator from Arizona.

Colorado Education Association President Kerrie Dallman helps with the landscaping at MSLA.

That energy is needed to ensure all the projects are completed in one day. The Colorado Education Association and MSLA will host an open house on July 1st for parents, students and community members to see the updates and enjoy their revitalized school.