Educator of the Year—and Beyond


During the 12 years Randi Weingarten was president of the United Federation of Teachers, I often battled with her in these pages. But when she was promoted in 2008 to be the head of the national American Federation of Teachers, she gave an acceptance speech that—as I told her in our first friendly conversation—surprised and greatly gladdened me.

She championed an organic change in our public school systems by focusing on “community schools.” The most creative, life-heightening prototype of this way of lifelong learning for students, teachers, and parents is Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone. If only every city had a version of it, and not only for black kids.

I can’t imagine current UFT leader Michael Mulgrew or our soon-to-be-departing Education Mayor being at home in the Harlem Children’s Zone. But community schools are increasing in the nation, and Randi Weingarten continues to make and sharpen the case for them.

On May 20, in an AFT ad in The New York Times—the content of which should have been a front-page story in the Times, especially with a new mayor soon coming in—Randi, in “Schools and Communities Stronger Together,” explains the core and soul of students, teachers, and principals discovering what they’re here for in this country and world.

Every candidate for mayor and every voter—and students—should know what she keeps learning: “Community schools are neighborhood schools that meet students’ academic, enrichment, social, and health needs by coordinating partners and resources . . . community schools connect the school, students, families, and the neighborhood.”

My first contact with an example of this kind of learning connection was in a Harlem elementary school I began visiting in the early 1960s for my 1967 book, Our Children Are Dying. In Harlem, and other parts of the city, many angry parents felt the schools were failing their children, not only academically but also by not getting to know and understand them individually. Nor in Harlem did they dig that most of the principals were white.

An exception, several jazz musicians living in Harlem told me, were the parents at P.S. 119 in central Harlem where Elliott Shapiro was principal. At the school, I found that parents had easy and quick access to Shapiro. So did the kids with their complaints. He not only knew most of their names but also a lot about them and their home lives.

Some of the parents called Shapiro “the principal of the neighborhood.” When something went wrong with the heating systems in their buildings, he intervened with landlords. And as parents complained to city agencies about neighborhood problems and got no answer, Principal Shapiro did get answers from them.

Later, when he became a community superintendent in another part of the city, I asked Shapiro if he had any idea how P.S. 119 kids did when they went off to junior high school.

“I don’t know exactly what influence I had on them,” he told me, “but I did hear that in junior high school, they were more specifically assertive in their own behalf than the other kids. A principal told me he always knew a P.S. 119 child by the directness of his relationship with adults and he doesn’t immediately make us the enemy.”

Getting back to Randi Weingarten and the breadth and depth of the effects she has seen in community schools, she cited “higher graduation rates, increased family engagement, healthier students,” and—dig this—“academic and enrichment programs before and after school—and during the summer, mental and medical health services, food assistance, mentoring, internships, college counseling, and a variety of social services.”

During all these years of covering New York City schools—and when I wasn’t 86 and traveled to schools in other cities—I often heard education reformers and desperate parents emphasize the need for real, continuing accountability—from teachers, principals, school systems, along with city and state officials—for what should be and has to be happening in schools.

Randi Weingarten goes deeper: “It’s time to stop ignoring poverty and the realities that disadvantaged students face. We must instead address the factors that can and do impede student achievement and well-being. At a time when some “leaders” seek to hold others accountable for struggling schools but shirk their own responsibilities, the community schools strategy offers a constructive model of shared responsibility and effective solutions. Let’s see more leaders help more communities benefit from that approach.”

Elliott Shapiro was more specific about accountability for educators directly involved in the schools—teachers, principals, city and state education officials.

“I’ve been doing more thinking about accountability,” he said to me emphatically one day. “A school’s staff has to be measured not only with regard to the quality of the teaching and the efficiency of the administration, but also with respect to that school’s involvement in the living conditions of its neighborhood, the neighborhood the children come from.

“If you’re really saying that education has to deal with ‘the whole child,’ then teachers and administrators in a poverty area, for instance, ought to be knowledgeable about the disasters that often take place in the lives of poor people. If a school isn’t involved in the family’s housing and in the quality of health services the family gets, then that school should get a negative accountability rating.”

That sounds like what community schools should be all about. What does UFT head Mulgrew think about that? And Dennis Walcott or his successor as our schools’ chancellor? Teachers and principals’ evaluations should also take these qualifications into account.

One other thing: Looking up Randi Weingarten’s biography, I found that from 1991 to 1997, she taught history at Clara Barton High School in Crown Heights, Brooklyn. And this information really got to me: “With teacher Weingarten’s help and enthusiasm, a number of her students won national and state awards in debates on constitutional issues.”

When I used to travel a lot and was asked to talk about the First Amendment and the rest of the Bill of Rights in schools—from elementary school to graduate classes—I was always lifted by the excitement of students as they heard stories about how we got—and have struggled to keep—the individual rights and liberties that identify us as Americans.

Especially now, as we get closer and closer to living in a country where more of us are under continually growing suspicion-less surveillance by our local, state, and federal governments. Has Mitt Romney shown that he’s going to be any different from Obama in giving a damn about the Constitution? We need actively engaged civics classes if new generations of voters are going to be texting and twittering about how Americans can get free again.

I’d very much like to know which community schools are doing anything about that. Maybe Randi Weingarten can tell us in the next American Federation of Teachers ad. Reporters covering schools aren’t that interested in teaching how to live the Bill or Rights. Nor is most of the rest of the media.

Thomas Jefferson kept saying again and again that only we run-of-the-mill citizens can protect our liberties from our government. Surely that should be a natural learning priority in, of all places, community schools.

A footnote that connects to current arguments about teacher evaluation: When Elliott Shapiro first came up as a possible community superintendent, the Department of Education turned him down because he’d never had a graduate course at a college or university in that level of leadership.

He had just learned to experience how students learn, one at a time, and to let them know he knew. He earned a degree with them.