The Family Resource Center at Kakiat Elementary School in Spring Valley – where many residents commute to nearby New York City -- is filling a niche that is only now emerging on the radar screens of policymakers: the pressing need to address suburban poverty stemming from both the Great Recession and growing immigrant populations outside major cities.
AFT President Randi Weingarten, as part of a daylong "Back to Where it All Began" tour by the national union leader and Rockland County native, joined NYSUT President Dick Iannuzzi to explore how one suburban county is connecting resources to families in need in order to improve educational outcomes. The two also spent two hours with Clarkstown teachers answering questions and hearing differing viewpoints about the national political scene and New York's new teacher-principal evaluation law.
Kakiat's Family Resource Center operates under the auspices of Rockland 21C, a pioneering countywide coalition that brings together eight school districts, Rockland BOCES, the Rockland Teacher Center and a number of public and private agencies to support the educational opportunities and support services for children.
"To see this in a suburban setting is very powerful," said Iannuzzi, after hearing that Kakiat's Family Resource Center, for example, offers a walking club, financial literacy workshop, gardening tips, reading night and other programs to involve large numbers of families - many newly arrived immigrants - in the life of the school. Iannuzzi said the Rockland 21C model is an offshoot of similar efforts – like the Say Yes program in Syracuse – that have been enormously successful in involving the public and private sectors, and community agencies, as partners in supporting the work of public schools.
"For a teacher union to meet its mission, it must have a social agenda. Programs like this are opportunities for union leaders to take a leading role in their own communities and see real success," he said.
Weingarten added, "What you have created here is heroic and miraculous. You have figured out a way to take a few dollars, stretch them and create a safety net for children while making school the center of the community."
Tuesday was a special day for Weingarten, who attended Clarkstown schools as a student while her mother, Edith, taught in nearby Valley Cottage Elementary School in the Nyack School District. Weingarten's visit to Valley Cottage included an emotional reunion with teacher Beth Murray who, as a student-teacher, was mentored by Edith Weingarten. The national union leader later read a story to kindergartners in her mother's former classroom.
She told a school assembly that, in visiting schools across the country, she seeks to shine a spotlight on the "skills and love that go into teaching children. It's not just about how kids can dream their dreams, but how to help children achieve them."