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Lorretta Johnson's Visit and Forums in Cleveland Spark Staff Recalls

The power of the union was clear in Cleveland as its family liaisons—paraprofessionals who run every conceivable type of enrichment program for schoolchildren and their families—gathered Sept. 8-9 to welcome AFT executive vice president Lorretta Johnson to their city.

Lorretta Johnson in Cleveland

AFT executive vice president Lorretta Johnson, right, with school board member Rashidah Abdul-Haqq, left, and CTU president David Quolke.

  Led by Cleveland Teachers Union president David Quolke, paraprofessionals chair Cherylane Jones-Williams, director of community engagement Meryl Johnson and political director Michele Pomerantz, the local union brought together a range of stakeholders for meetings and school visits.

The result of these discussions couldn't be clearer: Through a combination of school district and foundation funding, nearly half of the 112 family liaisons laid off in June have been rehired.

The first forum took place at Antioch Baptist Church Sept. 8 under the aegis of its pastor, the Rev. Marvin McMickle, who has written a dozen books and has a long history of involvement with the Cleveland public schools as president of both the NAACP and the Urban League in Cleveland.

The church hall was filled with parents, teachers, family liaisons, district administrators and members of the church and community. Panelists came from the Willow K-8 school and the Cleveland School of the Arts' preK-8 campus.

Roger Paige, a family liaison at Willow since 1997, described how he has worked with churches, the YMCA and parent groups to help coordinate events on issues such as attendance and school safety. He's also involved in tutoring and home visits, and organizes monthly breakfasts for the community, plus an annual awards banquet for parents.

"There is nothing that the family liaisons do not touch," attested his principal, Angela Powers, about these employees who are members of the AFT's division for paraprofessionals and school-related personnel. Willow teacher Mark Angelo talked about the importance of liaisons simply getting parents and community members into school buildings—often through athletics.

The Cleveland School of the Arts sponsors many community-based programs, including Project Night-Night, in which preschool students pack sleeping kits for homeless preschoolers; each kit contains a blanket, a book and a teddy bear. Another recent activity brought parents and children together to create a large mural. The After-School Retreat to Facilitate Friendship draws about 280 children (nearly the school's entire enrollment) for a smorgasbord of activities including yoga, dancing, reading, ceramics and other crafts, cooking and games. The school also puts on two major performances every year, along with many smaller ones. "Our kids love to come to school," said teacher Ria TerraNova-Webb, adding that students recently were invited to perform at Carnegie Hall in New York City.

  Family liaisons in the audience described their schools' programs, too. Thomasine Gillom spoke of her school's Father & Me basketball team; 30 dads came out for it. Ruth Chatmon, a liaison at two schools, described a parent education program that teaches effective methods of discipline and helps parents draw up a one-year action plan to guide them through the new strategies.

Parents stood up to praise the family liaisons. "Watching her in action made me want to take action," said parent Vanessa O'Sullivan about liaison Beverly Braun, drawing applause and acclamation from the audience. "The joy it brought and the confidence it restored among our children were just awesome. Those things would not be available to our children without the family liaison program." And Judy Knight, vice president of the art school's parent organization, brought audience members close to tears as she described the liaisons' successes and said, "Hats off to all of you."

Liaison Michelle Stephens, an accountant by training who has worked at a school in both its Dress for Success and Take Your Parent to School Day programs, described the effect of layoff notices. She spoke of calls from parents and students asking if she was coming back. "I encourage you to keep your heads up high," she told her fellow liaisons. "My heart is so heavy, because we are really needed."

AFT executive vice president Johnson noted that none of the liaisons mentioned how much extra time they put into their jobs—"a lot of evenings, Saturdays, a lot of yourselves," she said. "This is not just a job. It's a calling."

Lorretta Johnson in Cleveland

Johnson engages a "power breakfast" of community leaders in Cleveland.

  School district officials and representatives from local churches, civic groups and private funders listened attentively at the forum and a "power breakfast" the next day in a meeting room at a second church, Trinity Cathedral. Family liaisons, Johnson told the attendees, are woven into the fabric of their communities. "They intercept the parent, train the parent, talk with the parent," she said. "That's what this program is all about."

The Rev. Mark L. Johnson, pastor at Liberty Hill Baptist Church, has been working closely with one neighboring school for about a year. His vision is for every church in Cleveland to be paired with a school in an initiative he calls "One School, One Church," whose purpose is "to watch the back of the school." While city leaders work to improve schools through academic and family support programs, he said, each school should have a church's phone number that principals can call if they need anything. That way, even if schools can't rely on the vagaries of public funding, "these churches are not going anywhere and the phone numbers are not changing."

In the meantime, he said, "I'm walking the halls, giving high fives and breaking up fights." As for most members of the wider community—who have no children or grandchildren and may think they have no stake in the schools—he added, "you can catch them in the churches."

Lorretta Johnson agreed, saying: "What I heard the reverend say today is wonderful. We need a church for every school."

Lorretta Johnson in Cleveland

Johnson, right, and paraprofessional chair Cherylane Jones-Williams, center, visit Carla Miller's class.

  Johnson's visit to Cleveland wound up with two school tours on Sept. 9, one to East Technical High School and a second to Lincoln West High School, both of which offer an assortment of wraparound services for students and their families. The AFT leader observed students in a Junior ROTC class learning to fold an American flag; chatted with special education students arriving at their classrooms; talked turkey with the schools' principals about funding; spoke with a school board member about community outreach; and joined Lincoln West's staff for lunch.

CTU president Quolke offered his thanks to the AFT and called on local leaders to begin developing a strategic plan on community engagement in the schools. To accomplish this, he proposed setting up more inclusive discussions, a survey and meetings at City Hall. He also hailed an effort called Humanware, which encompasses the district's social services programs and is designed to improve the conditions for learning so that all students are equipped to succeed in school. "We want to keep the dialogue going," he said. [Annette Licitra/photos by Janet Century]

September 13, 2010