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Deep in the Heart of Texas

August 28, 2010

By Dennis Van Roekel, NEA President

It’s Friday and the last day of our 2010 Back-to-School tour.  The weather forecast is calling for a temperature of 97 degrees in San Antonio today.  But this morning at 6 a.m., as I leave for Highland Park Elementary, it’s dark and cool. 

Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA) President Rita Haecker, San Antonio Alliance Teacher Support Personnel President Shelley Potter, and Alliance Executive Vice President Gracie Oviedo greeted me at Highland Park.  Principal Manuel Caballero, known as “Mr. C” to students and staff, welcomed me to the 97 year old school house for pre-k through fifth grade students.

It was just day five of the new school year for Highland Park, and it was amazing to see how much the young pre-K students had already learned.  I have tremendous respect for our members and the professional knowledge, expertise, and dedication they bring to their work with students. In addition to meeting pre-K students who were both excited and just a little frightened – I met several first-year teachers at Highland Park.  New teachers, Kaitlin Knaup, Yolanda Vasquez, and Kaleigh Hester, were as excited as the pre-k students, but they weren’t frightened.  These new teachers are ready for the challenge of helping to prepare classrooms of young students to succeed. 

TSTA Pres. Rita Haecker (right) and I met some great kids at Highland Park Elementary. 

A Highland Park teacher shared a wonderful story with me.  She told me that she started out tutoring ESL students and one of her first students was a young boy from Vietnam who didn’t speak English.  She didn’t speak Vietnamese, but she worked with the boy for four years before he and his family moved away.  Years later, she heard from him when he was graduating from high school.  He invited her to his high school graduation and introduced her as his first English teacher – she said the experience of working with that young boy changed her life and convinced her to become a classroom teacher. 

I’ve been hearing stories like that all week.  And I’ve been seeing first-hand the innovation, enthusiasm, and dedication that NEA members bring to their work in schools and classrooms all across America each day.  For example, every Monday is “College Day” at Highland Park Elementary.  The Highland Park community wants to start early, planting the seed of college in the minds of their pre-k students.  On Mondays, Highland Park students wear t-shirts that read, “I’m College Bound.”  

Also while at Highland, I met with a group of teachers who wanted to talk with me about the countless ways that their school is supported by parents and the surrounding community.  Many of the teachers live in the Highland Park community and their children attend or attended the school.  Stella Cardenas, Analisa Sanchez, Evelyn Alverez, and Laura Mora, all Highland Park teachers,  were eager to tell me about parents who no longer have students at Highland Park, but who still come out to volunteer and help ensure that children from their community have the resources and support they need to succeed.  Clearly, the Highland Park community understands the value of collaboration in making great public schools and helping to prepare students for the next phase of their lives. 

I also had an opportunity to talk with some parents from the Highland Park community; they echoed what the teachers and administrators said about the collaboration between the school and the community. 

Following the Highland Park visit, I hopped a ride to Austin with Rita where I met with a reporter and editor at the Austin American- Statesman. Clay Robeson of TSTA joined me for the meeting.  I was asked about NEA’s legislative priorities for the remainder of this year and next year.  Of course, I said the reauthorization of ESEA is our top legislative issue and I talked about NEA’s guiding principles for reauthorizing ESEA the right way. 

We spent quite a bit of time talking about the nation’s troubling drop-out statistics and the fact that there is no one solution or “silver bullet.”  Instead, among the approaches to this problem, one that we know will work, is for parents, educators, elected officials, and local community leaders must work together to identify strategies and initiatives that work for students in their communities, instead of trying to take a cookie cutter approach. 

The day and the tour ended at Parades Middle School in Austin, home of the Pumas.  How about that Puma Power?! It was the end of the first week of school and I arrived as students were being dismissed for the first weekend after the opening of school.  I felt a little like the students – excited about the possibilities of the school year and a little overwhelmed by all the opportunities.  My experiences over the past week reassure me that we’re moving in the right direction.  Collaboration really works and it makes a difference when the adults in a school community – all the adults – get together and decide what they are going to do as a team to help ensure that students succeed. 

It was a joy for me to meet so many members and thank them for their important work.

I’ve seen and experienced a lot this week, it will take a while to digest it all, but you can be assured that the visits, conversations – the students, parents, and members – will influence what we do as an Association moving forward.

Finally, I want to thank everyone who helped make this week possible.  Principals, teachers, state and local leaders, students, parents, administrators – all were gracious in welcoming me into their schools and classrooms.  I know from experience that the first few days of school are exciting and challenging, so I am grateful to each of you for allowing me to visit and for helping to make this a rich and rewarding experience.  Thanks to everyone.  Make it a great school year!