Randi Weingarten and the National American Federation of Teachers: No Child Left Unhealed

To work, a public school must be active in students' lives before and after class

The first book I wrote on this city's public schools was Our Children Are Dying (Viking Press, 1966). It was about a Harlem elementary school, P.S. 119, serving students from 119th to 134th Streets—96 percent of whom were black. The rest were Puerto Rican, along with a few Chinese students.

According to the NYPD, this was "a high delinquency area," and the parents' level of income was such that most of the kids qualified for free lunch (which some parents also came in to share).

My many visits to that school took place during rising anger among black and Puerto Rican parents around the city at continually failing schools teaching their children that they were dumb. This passionate movement for "community control" of black and Puerto Rican schools climaxed in the 1968 citywide strike by the United Federation of Teachers, which was ignited by the union's fierce battle with the black school board in Ocean HillBrownsville.

Covering an Ocean Hill–Brownsville school for the Voice during the 1968 strike was like entering a war zone. One morning, NYPD snipers were stationed on the roof of a building next to the school.

What drew me to Harlem's P.S. 119 before the inevitable 1968 "community control" explosion—which for a long time deepened the racial divide in New York—were the people I knew in Harlem who told me of an encouraging exception. The principal of P.S. 119—Elliott Shapiro, white and Jewish—was proving every day that no child would be left behind, and he was even described by some parents as "the principal of the neighborhood."

For example, one winter when the heating failed in two houses, Shapiro threatened the owner's agent with a picket line composed of teachers and Shapiro himself. The heat came back on in short order. In my many visits to the school, I found that Shapiro's involvement in the neighborhood and the lives of his students outside of school was continuous.

This actually was a community school! "Education that stops at three in the afternoon is mis-education," Shapiro told me. "Our school has to have an organic relationship with the community. If the staff tries to take action on housing or other problems in the neighborhood, that indicates to the community that there is hope. Then the parents come alive! In any case, what happens in the street affects our children." In the decades since then, I've reported on schools not only here but in other cities, but I've never found another Elliott Shapiro. That's why I thought of him while I was reading Randi Weingarten's July 14 Chicago speech upon being made president of the national American Federation of Teachers (while retaining the presidency of this city's United Federation of Teachers).

Weingarten's speech should be very closely read by Schools Chancellor Joel Klein. Mayor Bloomberg, preening over his largely illusory reform of the public schools, has been impervious to any criticism of Klein's decisions. But I know that Klein has my book on Elliott Shapiro, because we talked about it after I sent him a copy. He may be open to taking advice from Weingarten, his frequent sparring partner, on how to create the context for more Elliott Shapiros.

In Chicago, after attacking the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind law for its inflexible and purely mechanical mandates, which have blocked the efforts of all those teachers and principals who actually give a damn about their students, Weingarten said: "Can you imagine a federal law that promoted community schools—schools that serve the neediest children by bringing together under one roof all the services and activities they and their families need? Imagine schools that are open all day and offer after-school and evening recreational activities and homework assistance."

I've long dreamt of hearing such things from a teachers' union leader with the national clout that Randi Weingarten now has. As she emphasized, "the American Federation of Teachers is the second-largest and fastest-growing union in the AFL-CIO." (And in this city, on her watch, the UFT has organized 28,000 home-based child-care providers. That took some doing!)

"Suppose," Weingarten said at her inauguration, "the schools included child care and dental, medical, and counseling clinics, and other services the community needs. For example, they might offer [adult] neighborhood residents English-language instruction, GED programs, or legal assistance" (emphasis added).

Consider how many public-school children around the country—that is, students who are not in the so-called "better schools"—have hearing, vision, and other physical problems that are either undetected in the classroom or, if noted, are only cursorily treated.

In an Associated Press story run by The Washington Post on July 15—the day after Weingarten shed some badly needed light on why so many public-school children merely stay in the shadows until they drop out—Melissa Kossler Dutton reported on schools across the country cutting "nursing staff or requiring nurses to work at multiple locations . . . at a time when more students are dealing with serious medical conditions, such as severe allergies, asthma and diabetes."

The one school nurse left in a small 800-student district in Garberville, California, "worries how she will oversee the district's seven schools. She was already struggling to perform annual health and vision screenings" (emphasis added).

How many kids are simply being left with their health impaired in big-city schools—even in the all-seeing Michael Bloomberg's New York? I don't know the answer. Don't you think we ought to find out?

In his important book Class and Schools: Using Social, Economic and Educational Reform to Close the Black-White Achievement Gap (Columbia University Press), Richard Rothstein of the Economic Policy Institute makes a life-changing point that both supporters and critics of the endlessly discussed No Child Left Behind law overlook: "Without fully adequate health care for lower-class children and their parents, there is little hope of fully closing the achievement gap." That's a first step—with a lot more to come.

I intend to ask Randi Weingarten what it would take to actually put into practice this and much more of her "community schools" vision. As she knows, with this city's teachers "spending more time doing test prep than teaching science and social studies" thanks to the mandates of No Child Left Behind, there is a multi-class learning problem throughout the school system. Years ago, I was in Schools Chancellor Tony Alvarado's office when the news of a rise in reading scores came in. Despite the news, Alvarado looked troubled.

"When are we going to teach them how to think?" he asked me.

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