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Never Too Busy To Help


Ellen Schoenenberg's Enthusiasm is Contagious


Dave Arnold

Last May, when several students came down with the mumps, school administrators acted fast. The incident happened around the St. Louis area, reaching across the Mississippi River into Illinois.

Administrators on the Illinois side of the mighty river issued a notice to staff members requiring them to provide medical records showing that they either had been vaccinated against this dreaded viral disease or were once victims of it and therefore immune.

Those unable or unwilling to comply would be given a full two-week leave of absence if they showed evidence of exposure. Many staff members didn't have the paperwork to prove their case one way or the other.

This caused much concern among education support professionals (ESP) and teachers whose only response to the order was to get a $40 shot and $105 blood test. Unfortunately, this would not only be costly but also require them to take time off from work and drive a distance to medical facilities.

Taking Charge

Ellen Schoenenberg, president of the Triad ESP Association, gets inoculated by Carla Gillespie, a nurse with the Madison County Health Department.

Ellen Schoenenberg is a teacher's aide with the Triad Community School District (TCSD) in Illinois, located just a few miles across the river from St. Louis.

There's an old saw that says, "If you want something done, ask a busy person."  Ellen is that person. She said she knew this mumps business would place undue financial and physical hardship upon ESPs and teachers. So, she dropped one of the hundred things she was doing and found a solution.

"I just try to take care of my people," she says.

Ellen called her local health department and, with permission from her superintendent, set up a day at school for staff members to receive the mumps, measles, and rubella inoculation by a nurse for a fee of $40.

Many ESPs, teachers, and administrators received the vaccination. Ellen and Superintendent Michael Johnson of TCSD were the last ones to get their shots. Neither had ever had the mumps.

Legacy of Leadership

Ellen has been employed at TCSD for just over 16 years. She was there to help negotiate her Association's first contract 12 years ago. She apparently did such a good job that she has been head negotiator ever since. Ellen has also been her Association's treasurer, region council representative, and grievance chair.

She is currently serving her fourth term as president of the approximately 100-member Triad Education Support Professional Association.

Over the years, time after time, when something needed to be done, Ellen was the busy one who took the bat in hand and made a clutch hit to win the game. For example:

1. When the school board was going to place ESPs as "at will employees," Ellen organized a letter campaign. ESP members and citizens of the community bombarded the school board with telephone calls and letters to defeat the school board's proposal.

2. Ellen had the foresight to see the problems and expenses some of her ESP members were going to face trying to become "highly qualified" and meet the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements.

 One problem was identifying locations where exams and tests would be administered. She worked with administrators to setup a series of workshops and testing areas located within the school district so her members wouldn't have to travel to all parts of the state.

3. She carries out an annual membership campaign registering new employees and encouraging non-members to join the Association.

4. To meet new demands by Internet users, she developed a Web site for her Association. Member can access contract at any time, read the local's newsletter that Ellen writes and publishes fives times a year, and view school board minutes. She also provides helpful links to the National Education Association, state legislature, and school district.

5. Last year, TCSD went to the community and asked for an increase in local property tax to fund the construction of several school buildings. Not only did the Triad ESP Association contribute money to the campaign, but once again Ellen also organized her local to phone community members and ask for their support. Her efforts contributed to the voter referendum passing by less than 50 votes.

A Desire to Serve

"Ellen has consistently demonstrated a fearless desire to make working conditions fair for her members," says Marcus Albrecht, Illinois Education Association UniServ Director. He has worked with Ellen for more than 10 years.

"She hates injustice and has excellent communication skills," he says. "It is a pleasure to work with someone who is unflinching in their desire to serve their members."

Albrecht speaks particularly well of her negotiating skills.

"She comes to the bargaining table with sound proposals, strong rationale and supporting documents," he says.

I also have been acquainted with this extraordinary leader for about 12 years. She takes little credit for all that she does.

 "It's my job," she says, "as their president."

More Dave's columns.

(Dave Arnold, a member of the Illinois Education Association, is head custodian at Brownstown Elementary School in Southern Illinois. He can be contacted at dparnold@csuol.com.)

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the NEA or its affiliates.


Dave Arnold: This school custodian and former Illinois Education Association ESP of the Year is a published poet. But most Association members know him best from the editorials -- Dave's View --