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Getting Excited (And a Little Lost) in Missouri

August 26, 2010

By Dennis Van Roekel, NEA President

Tuesday was a long, but rewarding day. No chef's hats to wear, but a couple of great T-shirts – I especially like my “Columbia Public Schools Rock!” T-shirt. 

The day started early, just as it does for NEA members all across the country.  I had a great meeting with members of the Columbia Missouri National Education Association (CMNEA) at West Junior High School.  Many of them had to take release time in order to meet with me, and I know what a sacrifice it is to be away from schools and classrooms this time of the year, so I’m grateful to all of them for taking the time to meet.

This is such an exciting time of year for our profession.  We meet new students and as we get to know each of them, we wonder which of them will grow up to be a world-renown surgeon, a police officer who saves lives, or even President of the United States.  It’s also a challenging time with everyone adapting to new schedules and routines, so I’m especially grateful to members of CMNEA for getting up early and coming to meet with me before going to meet their students for the day.  

CMNEA President Susan McClintic greeted me at West and facilitated the discussion.  We talked about a range of local and national issues, including the value and importance of being a part of a national organization. Under the accomplished leadership of President Chris Guinther, the Missouri National Education Association has done an excellent job of helping members to understand the link between affiliates and the national organization in making a difference in the lives of our members and the students we serve. 

Notably, CMNEA has grown from just 187 members five years ago, to 500 members today.  The Missouri State Teachers Association used to be the leading local in Columbia, but that’s changing because of dynamic leadership that is demonstrating what our Association does for members, student, and public education – locally and nationally.  

During our discussion, I encouraged CMNEA members to take a proactive role in promoting public education and the work they are doing in classrooms and schools, right in Columbia. I told them to write letters to the editor, speak up about the work they are doing to transform public education and the lives of their students.

School bells ringing in the background were a familiar sound, so my time was up at West.  I made a very quick stop at Jefferson Junior High where I was greeted by Principal Gregory Caine and Assistant Principal Thaddeus Hamilton.  I visited briefly with NEA Foundation finalist Kathy Steinhoff and her Advanced Geometry class.

We got lost finding our way to Alpha Hart Lewis Elementary.  It’s a fantastic new school in a new development, so the streets didn’t show up on our GPS system.  It was worth the effort to get there – the school opened in January of this year and it’s a well planned and resourced facility – conducive to learning.

Columbia Superintendent Chris Belcher joined me, Chris Guinther and Susan McClintic in the brand new library at Alpha Hart Lewis to announce a $10,000 Public Engagement Project (PEP) grant for Columbia.  Superintendent Belcher talked about some of the public engagement work already underway in Columbia and how the grant will help them to expand that work and narrow the achievement gap for minority students. 

And then I was back in the van for a two hour drive to St. Louis for a meeting with the editorial staff of the St. Louis Post Dispatch.

Traveling to St. Louis from Columbia, we learned the states that will receive grants in round two of Race to the Top.  Congratulations to all of them.  I’m pleased that Florida, Hawaii, Massachusetts, New York, Ohio, and North Carolina all earned affiliate support for their inclusion and collaboration in developing their proposals. Crisscrossing the country, I’ve been emphasizing the positive results when there is collaboration and these winning states reinforce the notion that when we work together, great things happen for our students and the future.

I met with a group of editorial writers and reporters at the St. Louis Post Dispatch for an hourlong discussion.  They asked whether or not we support charter schools and I told them we do – when there is accountability and transparency.  I told them that despite the potential to serve as learning laboratories, for the most part, charter schools have not lived up to their promise. I told them that the same creativity and innovation is happening in public schools all across America and reiterated that the research and results just don’t show that charter schools are doing exceptionally better than public schools.

I also talked about NEA’s Priority Schools Campaign, explaining the work of our members and the Association to provide resources and support to targeted schools that have been labeled “low- performing.” 

On the subject of linking student test scores to teacher evaluation, I talked about the imperative to move away from standardized tests to formative assessments just as world leaders in education, such as Finland, have done.

They also asked me about Teach for America.  I told them we all want the most experienced plumber, lawyer, and doctor, so why in the world would we allow our children to be taught by people who have little or no classroom experience?

I finished the day in St. Louis with a tele-townhall meeting at the University of St. Louis J.C. Penney Conference Center.  We had members in three satellite locations.  Candidate for the U.S. Senate Robin Carnahan greeted members who participated.  Chris Gunthier moderated the discussion that included nearly 100 participants in the three locations. I answered questions regarding attacks on national board certification, school funding and tying teacher assessment to student achievement. 

It was fitting that the day ended with me reiterating the importance of collaboration.  From our members to superintendents and school board members, to parents and the community, we all must work together. Without collaboration, we can’t make the changes we need to help each and every single child succeed in life. 

It was late when I arrived in Columbus, Ohio for our next tour stop.  It was a long, but very rewarding day.  Wednesday is the first day of school in Columbus. I still get excited about the first day of school.