Nation’s Teacher Union Chief Comes Calling

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Randi Weingarten visits Carle Place schools

Why Carle Place? After all, Randi Weingarten’s purview as head of the American Federation of Teachers (AFT) is the entire country.

When asked about her May 4 visit by the Westbury Times she replied, “Since I’ve been fully vaxxed, I wanted to be out and about seeing districts and schools that have reopened for in-person learning safely and shine a spotlight on them. And Carle Place is a [district] where they’re doing everything right. They’ve had safe in-person learning since September. And Superintendent Dr. [Christine] Finn and union rep Michael Renga attribute that to the close working relationship that they have, which creates trust. And following the safeguards and protocols, which they have done assiduously.”

Pictured from left, Board of Education Vice President Neal McLaughlin, American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, Superintendent of Schools Dr. Christine Finn and Board of Education President John DiFrisco. (Photos courtesy of the Carle Place School District)

She added, “What I take from this trip is the joy of being together as community and working together in a collaborative way and following the science. And here you have district that is really committed to its kids and did what it needed to do, including really working together. They used the space wisely and really worked together.”

On what was celebrated as Thank a Teacher Day and Teacher Appreciation Week, the union chief praised Carle Place’s teaching staff for its “incredible commitment and dedication and flexibility and adaptability of its teaching staff. [This is also] Public Employees Appreciation Week and I’m so grateful to all those in these schools, from the nurse to the custodians to the educators and teachers and paraprofessionals and superintendent and school board, for making this work for our kids. And keeping each other safe.”

The district and the Carle Place Teachers Association were recognized by the AFT during a visit by Weingarten. According to a press release, “Also in attendance were representatives from New York State United Teachers and members of the district board of education. The Middle-High School Band welcomed visitors through a lively performance.”

“It was to honor our teachers, who worked with me collaboratively to enable the school to open five days a week,” Finn told the Westbury Times. “It was really about the teachers. [Weingarten’s a] nice person. She got down and dirty with the kids. Was talking with them, playing with them.”

Finn also praised Renga, and concluded, “It was a really special day, to have someone come in and see and that we were open five days a week. K-12 all year long. It was really amazing. We’d like to brag a little bit.”

Carle Place Middle-High School student Harleigh Buck expressed her appreciation for the teachers of the Carle Place School District.

Weingarten noted that she served on Governor Andrew Cuomo’s Reopening Schools Task Force last spring and summer, and knew that many districts had reopened for in-person learning this school year. And she very much wanted to visit some of these districts. After talking to staff at the New York State United Teachers, Carle Place “was one of the districts that we talked about,” Weingarten related. “So I’ll keep on doing these visits, but this was a great one to be at, on Teacher Appreciation Day.”

Teacher Beth Morrow, Social Studies Chairperson Leslie Rubenstein, Chairperson of Fine and Performing Arts Michael Limone also spoke, and student Harleigh Buck represented the student body and expressed how the teachers are truly deserving of this recognition.

“Without their hard work and determination, students would not have the privilege of going to school full time. Being 100 percent in person, five days a week has given us a sense of comfort and normalcy,” Harleigh said. “Carle Place teachers have shown to be adaptive and resilient when online schooling and when COVID-19 protocols were introduced, all while simultaneously boosting morale inside and outside of the classroom. We want you to know that your sacrifices and dedication that go into shaping the future generation do not go unnoticed.”

Weingarten told the teachers, “The glue that keeps it together is working together and that is a lesson that we need to teach every person in America, particularly every school superintendent and every group of teachers. The other lesson is that of resilience and that’s what all of you have done. You have demonstrated the sense that it is possible if we work together, the sense that we will get through this and the sense of optimism. We want to make sure that what I am seeing today, we see all over the country. I thank you, all of you for taking the risk to follow the science. You’ve shown that safety is the vehicle to do what needs to be done for students and for that I am so appreciative.”

Following the ceremony, Weingarten took a tour of the buildings and classrooms and spoke with students and teachers.

“This is why schooling is so important,” Weingarten told the Westbury Times. “We have to nurture people and help people up and find a way to help people thrive. That’s the biggest issue. And so when you have a district like Carle Place, when the union and management really understand and how to get together, that’s very important.”

“It was great to be at Carle Place today,” were her parting words.

Q&A

Given a few minutes with Weingarten, an influential and controversial figure in American education with many supporters and critics, the Westbury Times got a chance to ask some questions.

Q: From your perspective, do you think students fell behind in this year of remote and hybrid learning?

American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten lauded the hard work Carle Place teachers have demonstrated through this difficult year.

A: I think that COVID has been a nightmare for America, and people have been affected by it in ways big and small. So obviously, kids have been affected by it. And hybrid learning and remote learning are not the most efficacious thing we can do. Obviously, there needs to be a recovery period of time, which will be the next school year. Even for people who have been in school this year there’s always been the overhang of COVID. And in school district like [Carle Place], there’s been a lot of people who’ve been essential workers. So they’ve been exposed to COVID in a lot of different ways and there’s been a lot of anxiety and trauma. I don’t look at it like learning loss. COVID has been a war on country and how you look at it is, what do we do to this coming year to help everybody recover? And how do we reimagine schools in a way that will make them better than what how we left them off? I see light and hope moving forward.

Q: Do you consider charter schools the enemy of public education?

A: Are there issues with charters? I run a charter school. The issues that we run with charters is that you can’t take from and destabilize public schools. Charters in this state have often thought that they were in a different category. That they could have whatever funding they could have from the government and did not have to follow the same rules. And many times during periods of not having enough funding, you can’t take a competitive situation where you take money from a local high school to fund a charter, and all of sudden that high school can’t have library, can’t have a sports team anymore. So it’s the divesting, it’s the competition, it’s not having the same standards—that’s the issue that we have with the charters.

Q: Where do you see the next battles as a union leader?

A: The next battle is making sure our country has a sense of unity. We’re a multiethnic, multiracial country that has been torn asunder by lots of different issues and I worry about that every single day. So, figuring out how kids can thrive, and how we can respect people with different religions, different races and how we lift everyone together—that’s the biggest issue facing our country. When the big lie still has great resonance. When there’s so much disinformation. This is why schooling is so important. We have to nurture people and help people up and find a way to help people thrive. That’s the biggest issue. And so when you a district like Carle Place, when the union and management really understand and how to get together. That’s very important.

Q: As far back as the seventies, you had books such as Why Johnny Can’t read. You have students unable to recognize the United States on a globe or not knowing what century the Civil War was fought in. How do we overcome such a lack of historical knowledge?

A: There has to be accountability, aligned to what kids need to know and do, and not just aligned with state standardized tests in English and Math. Which means making time for social studies, which is my topic, my area. We have to help kids. The purpose of education is for civic engagement and help kids gain the knowledge and skills so they can participate in our democracy. They can go to college or get a career or be prepared for life. One of the things that we’ve learned is that you have to engage passion and have passion for a purpose. So when we saw that band today and kids loving to be in band and loving to be in sports—that’s part of the reason why they come to school. So you need that passion. And you make sure it’s safe.

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Frank Rizzo is a journalist at Anton Media Group. With decades of experience in the industry, he is exceptionally equipped to cover local politics, business and other topics that matter to readers.

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