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Safe and Welcoming Schools

PSRP Reporter
Spring 2014
Feature Story

Creating an environment for learning in our neighborhood public schools.

AT TERRYTOWN ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, the day begins when each child is greeted at the front door. Inside the Louisiana school, AFT members work hard to ensure their students feel safe and welcome every day. Custodians keep the halls sparkling clean and the classrooms free of distractions; the custodial staff was recently increased, so the job is manageable. Nine ELL paraprofessionals guide children who are still learning English. Food service personnel ensure students have a nutritious breakfast in their classrooms—which is more convenient and comfortable for students—and lunch in the cafeteria. Maintenance and security staff make sure surveillance cameras are in working order so that everyone feels safe in the building.

And every morning, Terrytown students recite a bully-free pledge as part of a schoolwide effort to create a positive, supportive culture: “I am a kid against bullying, and I will: Speak up when I see bullying. Reach out to others who are bullied. Be a friend whenever I see bullying.”

Home away from home

Children often spend more than half their waking hours at school. From the moment they step onto the school bus, to the time they step safely through the schoolhouse door, eat breakfast in the classroom and lunch in the cafeteria, and walk through secure halls and play on the protected playground, support staff are the ones who set the stage for a positive experience at school.

Ensuring that our neighborhood public schools are safe, welcoming places for teaching and learning is a big part of the AFT’s commitment to reclaim the promise of public education for all children.

That concept is broken down into several elements, including bullying prevention (with programs like the AFT’s “See a Bully, Stop a Bully” campaign), school security (supported by the AFT’s task force on safe schools), and equitable and effective discipline practices. Also important are school bus safety (maintained by programs like the AFT’s “Stop for the Bus” campaign), labor-management collaboration, and building conditions that create a healthy and comfortable environment for children and staff.

Positive reinforcement

Built to replace a building destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, Terrytown Elementary is spacious and inviting. But schools don’t need brand-new buildings to demonstrate their commitment to keeping children safe and making them feel welcome and ready to learn. The passion at William Hart Elementary School in Gretna, La., is what drives the upbeat spirit among staff members and students there. Principal Tamara Warner makes sure everyone feels appreciated, from teachers to custodians and food service workers. “The support team is the backbone of any school,” she says. “They make sure the kids are safe and nourished so they can be active participants in their learning.”

Everyone at Hart is committed to maintaining fair discipline policies and avoiding suspensions. Instead of focusing on negative behaviors, they reward children with a “Spectacular Spectacular” event full of games and treats that students work eagerly to earn.

That concept of fair treatment is magnified for high school students at a “Justice for Lunch” program supported by the Saint Paul Federation of Teachers in Minneapolis. The local’s members, who include support staff, helped students organize the event to encourage dialogue between young people and adults in their community. At the discussion in November, tagged “Look beyond the Hoodie,” students talked about the Trayvon Martin tragedy. “Join us for lunch to break the communication barrier between adults and teens,” teens urged their peers in a Facebook promotion. “Many teenagers feel underestimated and misunderstood by adults; let the adults have the opportunity to get to know YOU and not the stereotype.”

Modeling cooperation

Communication is also the idea behind improving labor-management relations, another element on the safe and welcoming schools agenda. In Washington County, Utah, AFT Local 6032 asked the school board whether it could survey school bus drivers for ideas on improving the system. The board agreed, and the collaboration resulted in improvements like regulating driver hours so the same driver can transport children to and from a field trip destination, and ensuring all drivers get appropriate work breaks.

The Charlotte County (Fla.) Support Personnel Association teamed up with administrators to launch the Charlotte Academy of Support Employees, where support staff can develop skills and get the training they need to advance their careers. Academy students earn pay increases after completing a tier of classes, as per their union contract. Classes cover everything from how to work with developmentally disabled children to computer skills and communication.

In Hillsborough County, Fla., about half of the 4,000-member bargaining unit is Hispanic, says Hillsborough School Employees Federation President Iran Alicea, so he approached management about English classes for the staff. Now custodians like Gustavo Luna and Carmen Roman, at right, get paid $9 an hour for attending; the school system pays the instructor, and the union provides classroom space.  
“It’s a home run for us,” Alicea says.

AFT Connecticut is hosting a series of interactive workshops designed specifically for paraprofessionals, including one on the principles and practices of culturally responsive education. The local also offers public forums to increase community and family involvement in the schools. 

The AFT has instituted post-traumatic grief training for paras in several locations, in partnership with the New York Life Foundation. Workshops help staff guide students through the aftermath of tragedies like the school shooting in Newtown, but also through more commonplace events like the death of a family member or even a pet. The United Federation of Teachers in New York has an even more established program, and it sends out counselors to schools that have experienced anything from a teacher’s death from illness to a child being struck by a car in front of the school. “Death and grief are not topics that people readily speak about,” says Lila Ezra, who administers the program. Just giving staff the opportunity to discuss how to help their children through difficult situations like these is invaluable.

In suburban Chicago, the training is all about keeping the schools healthy and green. Custodians at South Suburban College participate in a campuswide “Earth Awareness Day,” and members of the Cook County College Teachers Union there are planning an eco-friendly cleaning training for staff. These efforts keep kids and staff healthier, and more environmentally sensitive policies can also reflect lower costs for the schools—freeing up resources for learning.

Safe and welcome means productive and proud

In a world where economic uncertainty haunts too many schoolchildren, school can be a predictable place, a safe haven where children know they will be respected and cared for. Conversely, when violence and stress enter that world, performance suffers.
Take this example: In Tulsa, Okla., students prepared diligently for a standardized test, and teachers were sure they would all ace it on test day. When they didn’t, staff realized that a gang fight in a nearby neighborhood the night before the test had upset the children so much, they were unable to perform. The school helped students address their fears and re-administered the test. This time, the children performed as expected.

This is not a one-off incident. A study in Chicago found that as violent crime increased, test scores went down. (Curiously, crime rates were not reflected in grade-point averages, which remained unchanged.) The problem in Chicago is exacerbated by the threat of school closings, which force children to attend schools outside their neighborhoods and sometimes to cross gang lines to get to class. The Chicago Teachers Union works closely with the community to oppose these school closings.

Bullying, another kind of violence, can also be a direct stress, causing headaches, stomach aches, anxiety and depression; sometimes there is insomnia or nightmares, and related absenteeism and poor academic performance. Even children who just witness bullying can feel unsafe and distressed by the violence. Instilling a “no bullies” culture with clear expectations and attention to the social causes of bullying makes a big difference in the number of bullying incidents—and in the feeling that children can be safe at school.

Other elements of the school environment also influence performance. The AFT’s “Building Minds, Minding Buildings” initiative shows that things like indoor air quality, acoustics and lighting make a significant difference in how children learn. And poor ventilation can spike carbon dioxide levels and make children sleepy and unfocused: One study shows that students in poorly ventilated rooms had lower test scores and were absent 10 to 20 percent more than their peers in other rooms. Similarly, students in classrooms with more daylight had fewer absences and better moods than those in rooms with fluorescent lighting. The AFT uses this sort of data to advocate for funding smart building design and modernization that ultimately helps children learn.

There are many elements that come together to make schools safe and welcoming, from green buildings to anti-violence programs. But the most essential element is the personal one. Children need adults in their corner—adults they can count on to keep them safe, to watch out for their best interests, to support them in becoming successful students and well-adjusted young people. Those people—support staff and other AFT members—are the ones who greet children every day on the steps of the school bus, at the schoolhouse door, in front of the classroom and behind the cafeteria counter. They are the essence of a safe and welcoming school.      

 —VIRGINIA MYERS