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NEA's 2014 Back to School Tour

It's the start of the new school year and the National Education Association (NEA) is on the road for its 2014 Back to School tour!

NEA president Lily Eskelsen García and other NEA leaders are traveling across the country to meet with members, students and community partners to raise awareness on issues affecting the nation’s public schools.

We’ll have updates from the road here, but you can also follow the action on Twitter through @Lily_NEA and @NEAToday. See more highlights on Lily's Blackboard.

August 20 - 22

NEA's 2014 Back to School Tour kicked off in California with NEA president Lily Eskelsen García, beginning with a call for schools all children deserve, joining the United Teachers of Los Angeles and the California Teachers Association in meetings with members, ethnic communities, and the press.

The tour continued in Los Angeles with a meeting with higher education faculty, students and Association members at California State University (CSU) Northridge, followed by a news conference on Degrees Not Debt.

Read the story on NEA Back to School Tour Spotlights College Affordability Crisis

Then it was off to Oakland where Eskelsen García spent the afternoon with leaders and members of the Oakland Education Association. She was joined by Oakland Education Association President Trish Gorham, California Teachers Association (CTA) President Dean Vogel, andState Superintendent of Education Tom Torlakson to officially launch CTA's Degrees Not Debt campaign.

For slideshow captions, view fullscreen and click "show info."

The day ended with a packed house for the Oakland Education Association's Rep. Council where CTA President Dean Vogel, Supt. Torlakson, and Eskelsen García addressed the members on topics including college affordability and toxic testing.

The tour wrapped up in the Bay Area with a visit to Paul Revere PreK - 8 School in San Francisco where Eskelsen García and CTA leaders met with United Educators of San Francisco leaders to tour the school, visit with members and read to kindergartners followed by a news conference with the Alameda Education Association at the Alameda Community Learning Center where CTA is organizing educators at the charter school for their first contract.

See the California tour recap on Storify.

August 22

With her daughters—Samantha, 4, and Brette, 3 weeks old—in tow, Bernadette Blackburn, a U.S. history teacher at Tuscarora High School in Leesburg, Va. was busy preparing for her students to return to school when she received a special visit from Joey Mathews, president of the Loudoun Education Association (LEA), and Princess Moss, secretary-treasurer of the National Education Association (NEA).

As part of NEA’s Back-to-School tour, the two education leaders spent the day going from classroom to classroom to greet and encourage educators to make it their best year yet.

While Rosemary Etuk, an English teacher, says she’s looking forward to "an exciting year," Anne Tulloch, a first year English teacher, says she’s excited about sharing some of her favorite authors, like G.K. Chesterton, with her incoming students.

Most educators were upbeat during the classroom visits. However, some expressed concern over the issue of underfunding. In the past three years, the Loudoun County Board of Supervisors has underfunded the school system by over $70 million, which has resulted in the elimination of summer school and after school bus activity; delays in full-day kindergarten expansion; larger class sizes; and delayed technology upgrades.

At Tuscarora, an outdated technology infrastructure means that when students take the Standards of Learning test, the Commonwealth’s computerized standardized test, the school must shut down all Internet services to avoid bandwidth overload.

Moss says, "Don’t ask us to do something without providing the right support."

Mathews explains that many of the county supervisors "don’t believe education is an investment; they think it’s a public burden," which is why the local association has set out to inform and engage the public to get involved in county school budget processes.

Loudoun is the second richest county in the nation, boasting an annual median household income of $118,650. With this kind of economic status comes growth, and the county has become one of the fastest growing school districts in the country. Tuscarora, for example, was built five years ago with the capacity to hold 1800 students. Today, the school holds about 2200 students.

With the amount of wealth flowing in Loudoun, "we should not be talking about underfunding our public schools," says Mathews. "But that’s where we’re at."

However, that’s not where he plans to stay. Instead, Mathews is out organizing, creating awareness, and collecting voices from members and the community to share with the school board members and board of supervisors.

Last year, the LEA presented to dozens of local organizations to inform community members on how the school budget is structured, as well as garner their support to fully fund public schools. More than 2200 signatures were collected and nearly 100 testimonials were submitted from parents, taxpayers, and educators on the effects of underfunding public education.

Mathews believes the effort was successful, as cuts to last year’s budget didn’t run as deep as previous years. Another win for LEA included reducing class sizes by at the elementary school level, step increases, and making the pay scale more competitive to prevent educators from going to neighboring counties where the salary is higher.

With schools starting after Labor Day, Mathews says this is just the beginning of LEA’s organizing efforts this year, saying that "we have to organize" to change things in a dynamic way.

"Today was a great beginning," says Moss. "We got some new members in the organization and I’m excited about the possibilities in tying these recruitment and engagement efforts to a community organizing effort."

By Brenda Alvarez

September 4 - 6

The second leg of NEA’s Back-to-School Tour got off the ground—literally—in Miami with NEA President Lily Eskelsen García taking a quick flight with Captain Barrington Irving, a Guinness World record holder for the “Youngest Person to Fly Solo Around the World.” The Miami native and international pilot is the founder of Flying Classroom, which is a digital program to help students excel in STEM subjects, plus other academic areas like geography and history. To help, Irving has transformed a plane into a virtual classroom that affords students, in particular those from high-poverty neighborhoods, the ability to make the connection between STEM and everyday life. Plans are underway to launch an exploration on Sep. 23 that lasts nine weeks and includes 16 expeditions between North America, Asia, Indonesia, and Australia. Students from select schools will have an opportunity to follow the flight route and communicate in real time with Irving.

“These are the types of opportunities students miss when standardized tests become the focus of education,” says Eskelsen García, adding that people only know a school by its standardized test score despite the great work that may be happening inside.

With a packed day of member meetings, interviews with reporters, and a press conference in support of gubernatorial candidate Charlie Crist, the tour went to Allapattah Middle School, where educators are working toward reducing a disturbing trend of police patrol hallways and disciplinary problems are handled by suspension and arrest, not counseling and detention. Known as the school-to-prison pipeline, educators, administrators, union leaders, and community partners showcased the school’s efforts to reduce this trend that turns young people into criminals.

The Miami tour wrapped up at Hialeah Senior High School, where school leaders underscored the importance of a well-rounded education with classes, such as drama, health science, constitutional law, and AP American history. While visiting Alfredo Granada’s philosophy class, Eskelsen García asked students what they would ask President Barack Obama for to help improve their school and education. Without pause, a student shouted, “More Granadas,” referring to having more incredible educators.

“Students know what they want with their education,” said Fedrick Ingram, president of the United Teachers of Dade (UTD). “They want an investment in quality and opportunities to learn.”

Florida Education Association President Andy Ford And Vice President Joanne McCall, along with UTD leadership, joined Eskelsen García throughout the day.

For slideshow captions, view fullscreen and click "show info."

Day two of the tour started in Osceola County with school visits to Westside K-12 and Highlands Elementary School. National, state, and local Association leaders visited several classrooms, spoke to dozens of educators, and engaged students.
At Westside, the group heard from Asako Ochi’s first graders, who described her as fun, great, awesome, funny, cool, and creative. A few doors down, third graders described their teacher, Lindsay Clark, as confident, fair and smart. Aside from great educators, the school houses several wraparound programs that meet the needs of the whole child. The Osceola County Education Association (OCEA) in many cases brokered these services, such as vision and dental care for students. Additionally, the school sends backpacks filled with enough food to feed a family of four each week. Westside serves the largest population of transient students in the district, with more than 300 students and their families living in dilapidated hotels that once housed Disney World tourists.

“Every place I’ve gone it’s the union that asks ‘What do our kids need?’ Of course we advocate for the profession, but there’s a balance to our union,” says Eskelsen García.

Read the story on NEA President Salutes Florida Educators For Focusing on the Whole Child
Highlands Elementary School was the last school visit in the Sunshine State. After several classroom stops, Eskelsen García sat with dual-language kindergarten students to eat lunch. The school has a 49 percent Hispanic population, many of whom speak only Spanish, and offers a dual-language program designed for educators to instruct students in their native language in the morning and then English in the afternoon. Valerie Rivera, an ESOL compliance specialist for the district, oversees the program. She says that for students to succeed in learning English “they must be fluent in their first language. From there, students can transition into English a lot quicker.” After lunch, a group of second graders received a special reading from the national Eskelsen García, who read Jaja, Jiji, Cuac, a Spanish-language book that tells the tale of a farmer and a mischievous duck.


The tour made its way to the OCEA offices, where Eskelsen García met with local Association members who formed a Latino caucus. The group shared stories about their organizing efforts to engage more Latino educators, especially when it comes to voting in local, state, and national elections. She encouraged them to go beyond their students and classrooms and get involved. “There is nothing wrong with being involved in politics. Politicians are certainly involved in our work.”
The tour wrapped up with an appreciation meeting for the top organizing recruiters. In the past three years, nearly 800 members have signed on to become members—167 of those have joined since the start of the new school year, just four weeks ago. The drive to organize may vary, but for Hector Acosta, who signed up 9 new members and has 6 more in the pipeline, it comes from being upset. “I’m ticked off at the injustices, games, and stupidity…happening within public education…from virtual schools, charters, and testing…educators need to be more involved.”

As the Florida portion of NEA’s Back-to-School tour ended, Eskelsen García’s goal was certainly met. She wanted to see first hand the incredible work of educators in spite of some horrendous challenges, such as Florida’s Comprehensive Assessment Test.
“If you have a picket sign or a gun—that’s the story of the day. Caring teachers who meet the needs of kids, that’s not going to make the 6 o’clock news,” she says, “But that’s a good story and we want to tell it; it must be told.”
FEA and OCEA leaders, including president Apryle Jackson were also a part of the tour.

Check out the social media highlights from the tour on Storify.

September 10 - 11

NEA President Lily Eskelsen García traveled to the Rio Grande Valley (RGV) for the continuation of NEA's 2014 Back to School Tour where she received a big South Texas welcome from the 65,000 members of the Texas State Teachers Association (TSTA) and TSTA President Noel Candelaria.

Day one of the Texas tour began with breakfast with school superintendents from across the Valley. School funding, dropout prevention, 'toxic testing' are hot topics in south Texas.

Rio Grande educators working with administrators, parents, and volunteers have dramatically increased the area's graduation rates through unique campaigns designed to keep students in school.

From breakfast to coffee—power coffee that is. In the RGV, movers and shakers—along with families, retirees and workers—all shoot the breeze at Sweet Temptations. At the local McAllen diner, Eskelsen García talked funding and toxic testing with The Rio Grande Guardian.

Interviews with News Taco, ABC affiliate KRGV and The Brownsville Herald and other media concluded a packed schedule. KRGV interviewed Eskelsen García on how the crisis on the border is a reality in classrooms across the U.S. The story can be found online (video and transcript).

That evening, TSTA hosted an event in McAllen, where a packed room of members from across the Valley turned out to meet the first Latina president of NEA.

Introducing Eskelsen García was Donna I.S.D. Superintendent Jesus Rene Reyna, who commended educators for their work, amidst the many challenges facing students in the Valley.

Despite working in school districts with the highest poverty in the state, coupled with the lowest per pupil spending in Texas, students here exceed the statewide averages on student achievement indicators. Students' college readiness is 73 percent for Region I, which spans from Brownsville to Laredo, while the statewide average of is 69 percent.

"During my visit this week with TSTA leaders and members, I've met educators who have a high percentage of students from low-income families, who are English Language Learners, and who may be at risk of dropping out of school. Our public schools educate children who face these challenges and many students succeed in school, despite the obstacles," said Eskelsen Garcia.

Day two in Texas started early with an all-staff breakfast "meet and greet" at Runn Elementary School in Donna, which is less than a mile from the U.S.-Mexico border and the Donna Rio Bravo International Bridge. Of the 300 students, the school has enrolled 14 unaccompanied children from Central America. According to TSTA, the greatest influx of students crossing the border have been enrolled in Houston and schools in the north.

From there, Lily stopped by the local Univision and Fox affiliates for in-studio interviews. Before heading to the airport, Lily and TSTA leaders made a visit to Jefferson Elementary School in Edinburg, where she was greeted by Edinburg local president Alfredo Soto III and school staff.

For slideshow captions, view fullscreen and click "show info."

See the Texas tour recap on Storify.

September 12 - 13

It was a tale of two schools on the first day of the New Jersey leg of NEA's 2014 Back to School Tour.

The day began at Pyne Poynt Middle School, located in high-poverty, high-crime Camden. The school is one of the New Jersey Association's (NJEA) Priority Schools, and because of the union's involvement in leading change, programs such as ASK US (United Scholars) were developed to help students on the cusp of passing the state assessment through mentoring.

After breakfast with educators at the school and a brief tour, NEA President Lily Eskelsen García met with the students in the ASK US program to talk about what they need at their school. Their responses included wanting an art teacher back at their school, extracurricular clubs and some color on the walls.

When talking about missing their teachers who were no longer at the school, some of whom were laid off earlier this year, Eskelsen García noted that the students spoke about their teachers like they were family. "They are," replied Keiri, an 8th grader.

In a park across the street from Pyne Poynt, Eskelsen García, joined by NJEA President Wendell Steinhauer and Camden County Education Association President Robert Farmer, met with frustrated parents and community members who feel ignored by politicians and ready for their kids to have the same opportunities as any in New Jersey.

Afterwards, the group had lunch at the Camden County Education Association with representatives from the Camden County Boys and Girls Club and then traveled 50 miles north to Plainsboro.

Greeted by West Windsor-Plainsboro Education Association President Bruce Salmestrelli, Eskelsen García toured West Windsor-Plainsboro High School North, a school that shows what can be achieved when students are given resources to excel.

The school offers state-of-the-art technology, teams in 29 sports, various student publications, acclaimed performing groups in vocal and instrumental music and over 40 clubs devoted to specialized interests. Diversity is also celebrated at West Windsor-Plainsboro, where students speak 33 languages. 

"I wanted to go to a school that has a lot of challenges, and I wanted to go to a school that has a lot of resources. And I want to talk about how we close that gap." Eskelsen García explained at an afterschool meeting with educators at West Windsor-Plainsboro. 

The answer? Educating the whole child. "You put the kid together first, and the world will follow," said Eskelsen García as she wrapped up the day at a meeting with NJEA's executive committee and county presidents.

Read the story on NEA’s Back to School Tour Highlights Opportunity Gap in Public Education

On day two of the New Jersey Back to School Tour, NEA President Lily Eskelsen Garcia opened the NJEA’s Delegate Assembly. She spoke to the issues of toxic testing, equity and opportunity, and the need for educators to organize and be the ones offering solutions.

“Nobody will listen to us until we say what’s better,” said Eskelsen García. “What’s better is educating the whole child. What’s better is equity.”

Eskelsen García also shared her experiences from the previous day's school visits.

“I asked staff and students at each school the same question, ‘Complete this sentence: my students are… or my teachers are...’” said Eskelsen García. “If you closed your eyes, you wouldn’t be able to tell which school they came from. They all had the same answer. Teachers are heroes and inspiring. And so are the students.”

 For slideshow captions, view fullscreen and click "show info."

The New Jersey tour wrapped with a discussion about testing, educator activism, accountability and curriculum with influential education bloggers in the state.

Check out the social media highlights from New Jersey on Storify.

September 22

After stops in Alaska, California, Florida, Texas and New Jersey, NEA’s 2014 Back to School Tour is wrapping this week in the Midwest.

Wisconsin Education Association Council President Betsy Kippers welcomed NEA President Lily Eskelsen García to the “Badger State” at a reception with leaders of the Green Bay Education Association.

The Wisconsin tour continued with a visit to Howe Elementary School. Located in Green Bay, the school is very diverse and has five bilingual classrooms. Ninety-three percent of the students live in significant poverty, and more than 10 percent are homeless. But these challenges don’t stop the educators from doing everything it takes to provide their students with the same opportunities that students with more advantages have.

After media interviews in the school’s library and discussions about the need for resources to educate the whole child and the importance of electing governors who will provide funding for those resources, Eskelsen García visited Dalinda Melo Guzman’s fist-grade bilingual class, where she read “JaJa JiJi Cuac.”

Eskelsen García was then led by 5th-grade student Lance Alexander III on a tour of the school’s community garden and the Community Resource Center.

Lance Alexander and NEA President Lily Eskelsen García tour the community garden at Howe Elementary School in Green Bay, Wisconsin.

Photo by Patrick Ryan

Inside the Resource Center is a dental clinic for students and parent educators who offer guidance for parents before their children enter school, among other early intervention supports.

The day ended at the University of Wisconsin with a “Women in Leadership Roundtable,” moderated by Kippers with gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke and Eskelsen García. Discussion revolved around vouchers and how to ensure funding is directed to neighborhood public schools, not private schools, and what legislators can do to lessen the financial burden of higher education.

“I’ve been so inspired by this Back to School Tour and by all the people I’ve met who say they want something better for the children in their state,” said Eskelsen García while closing the roundtable.

See the Wisconsin tour recap on Storify.

September 23

It was a day full of robotics, hearing what students love about their teachers, and lifting up public school successes for NEA President Lily Eskelsen García on the second day of NEA’s 2014 Back to School Tour in the Midwest.

First up was a visit to Irving Elementary School, located in Oak Park, Illinois, where Eskelsen García and Illinois Education Association President Cinda Klickna had breakfast with staff and parents at the school.

Following breakfast, Eskelsen Garcia toured the school, seeing everything from a butterfly garden, funded by a grant students on the school’s green team helped write, to a first-grade class where one student exclaimed, “This is actually true, I have the nicest teacher in the school!”

From Irving Elementary School, Eskelsen García and Klickna traveled to Percy Julian Middle School and joined with Chicago-area elected officials Sen. Kimberly Lightford, Sen. Don Harmon, Rep. Camille Lily, and Rep. Chris Welch. The group spent time in Tim Walsh’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) class, where students were working on their robotics projects.

Percy Julian has implemented Project Lead the Way, a project-based middle school design program that introduces students to elements of STEM. It enables students to demonstrate creative and critical thinking skills and problem solving skills; develop time management skills; and, acquire the ability to cope with failure, learn from experience and try again.

“The students knew exactly what they were doing,” explained Eskelsen García. “They told me ‘we’re working as teams to invent something based on what we learned about the mechanics,’ and what’s great is that it’s all supposed to be different. It’s not supposed to be a factory product.”

Eskelsen García also participated in a book reading of her bilingual children’s book, “Rabble Rousers - Agitadores” at Women & Children First Bookstore while in Illinois; lunched with parent bloggers; and, met with Education Support Professionals from Illinois Education Association to learn more about their organizing efforts.

Check out the social media highlights from Illinois on Storify.

September 24

NEA's 2014 Back to School Tour ended on a high note in Michigan, with a visit to Northwestern High School, a seminar with future educators at Michigan State University's College of Education and a rally with Michigan Education Association (MEA) members and gubernatorial candidate Mark Schauer about the importance of voting for pro-public education candidates this November.

Northwestern is one of NEA's Priority Schools. Located in economically depressed Flint, the school recently worked its way off the list of lowest performing schools in the state as a result of their school improvement grant and partnership with United Teachers of Flint. NEA President Lily Eskelsen García learned how the staff is building success for their students in the face of immense poverty-driven challenges.

What has worked at Northwestern is strengthening teacher leadership skills through quality professional development, redefining good teaching and learning, ensuring accountability and engaging families and communities in the improvement process.

"We have come together as family and worked so hard to get off that bottom list,"said English teacher Tammi Armbruster as she thanked Eskelsen García for visiting.

Also while at Northwestern, Eskelsen García talked about voting and activism with students in James Jackson's World History Class. Using part of Rock the Vote's Democracy Class, Eskelsen García asked the students what issues they care most about. Answers included safety, unemployment in Flint, and school buildings that aren't "raggedy."

From Flint, Eskelsen García traveled to East Lansing for a roundtable discussion with Michigan Education Association President Steve Cook, Schauer, NEA Student Program Chair Chelsey Herrig and Wayne State University student Brianna Bolton. The group talked to reporters about how crippling student debt is preventing young people from buying homes and for teachers, making it difficult to afford the school supplies they need to provide out of pocket for their students.

Schauer replied that he would make education his number one budget priority if elected Governor, and echoed that statement later at a rally with MEA members.

The higher education focus continued at Michigan State University where Eskelsen García met with members of the MSU Administrative Professional Association followed by a dialogue with students in the College of Education.

Associate Professor Dr. Alyssa Hadley Dunn introduced Eskelsen García to talk about the Global Education Reform Movement (GERM), toxic testing and to encourage future educators that they are the "foundation of everything."

"You are never JUST a teacher," said Eskelsen García. "We are powerful advocates for students."

See the Michigan tour recap on Storify.

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