April 19, 2015

DAY FOUR: Special delivery to the Capitol

Author: Liza Frenette
Source: NYSUT Communications
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Caption: Maria DeAngelo celebrating the end of her 152-mile trek inside the Capitol's War Room. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

The last time Maria DeAngelo was at the state Capitol in Albany, she was in fourth grade on a field trip with her classmates to learn about government. Today, at age 47, she finished a 152-mile walk from Saranac Lake to the Capitol so that government could learn from her - and the thousands of public school educators asking lawmakers to "Walk in Our Shoes."

Walking in a tight, dense rain, she took the Capitol by storm, finishing the last four-and-a-half hours of her trip in challenging conditions. The petite and powerful strider, dressed in sleek black leggings and rain gear, was greeted in downtown Albany's Washington Park by a crowd of loud supporters from NYSUT, as well as television camera crews and newspaper reporters, and some loyal colleagues from her Saranac Lake school. Her pink baseball cap has been on her head all four days, through velocity and victory.

The groups walked with her down State Street, chanting "In Our Shoes, In Our Shoes" to the ornate stone Capitol, through security, up the reddish stone steps of the Million Dollar Staircase and into the domed "War Room" outside the Governor's Office.

There, DeAngelo presented a representative of the governor with a portfolio of drawings of sneakers from students in Saranac Lake and other districts along her route. The outside of the portfolio bore the same words spoken by DeAngelo as she handed over the artwork: "Please walk in our shoes."

Alongside the paper sneakers are words explaining what public school means to the student artists: computers; friends, extracurricular activities, gym equipment, art supplies. And they all know what it's like to lose those things, because so much has been taken away from public education.

Money. Class time. Creative education. Respect. Jobs. Resources. And field trips, such as the one that took DeAngelo from her school in Schalmont in Schenectady County to the Capitol all those years ago.

"We've lost funds, and we've lost people," DeAngelo told a phalanx of reporters at the Capitol, as she repeatedly lifted her legs up and down, up and down, to avoid an abrupt stop of her long walk that could cause cramping.

The soft-spoken DeAngelo, whose energy goes to her feet faster than it does to her vocal chords, told reporters how it's "been hard to have a dialogue" with the governor.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has not been to any public schools since he began his second term, and has only been to a few prior to that.

"If you want to make public education better, you should talk to the stakeholders … respect the stakeholders," she said.

"High-stakes testing is one of the things we need to have a dialogue about," DeAngelo said.

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The crowd of supporters joining DeAngelo at the Capitol today included NYSUT officers Karen Magee, Andy Pallotta and Martin Messner. Photo by El-Wise Noisette.

"The tests are not developmentally appropriate," added NYSUT President Karen Magee at the Capitol today alongside DeAngelo. "There's an assumption the tests are valid."

The U.S. Senate just voted 22-0 to overhaul the No Child Left Behind Act, and "It would be wise of New York state to follow suit," said Magee. The Senate bill is geared to address poverty and educational inequality and moves away from sanctions and high-stakes tests. [See related article: Weingarten: A step forward in Washington, a step back in New York.]

The number of people opting out of the tests, Magee said, "has grown exponentially since last year."

DeAngelo's four-day journey wound through the mountains from Saranac Lake through Lake Placid, Keene and Keene Valley the first day, lasting about eight hours. The second day was 48 miles through Schroon Lake, Pottersville, North Creek and Warrensburg. On Day Three, she finished her 48 miles in the dark at Clifton Park, wearing neon green lighting devices. She had nearly full sun most of the first three days but woke to a cold rain today.

Each night, she said, it took her about an hour-and-a-half to be able to eat after walking for up to 13 hours, and then she'd eat a salad, something with protein – and a cupcake. Maybe two cupcakes.

She has walked alongside creeks, forests and lakes stretching themselves free of the last of winter ice. She has walked in sun, shade and rain. She has set her stride alongside barns and then busy highways.

Along the way, she has been visited by throngs of supporters, all cheering her - some walking with her - from local teacher unions including Amsterdam, Saratoga, Glens Falls, Clifton Park, Keene, Queensbury and the ubiquitous Saranac Lake - whose members seemed to be popping out from behind trees. Today, her principal, Bruce Van Weelden, came to cheer her on the Capitol, after walking 15 miles with her on Day Two.

"She's here because people are unsupported," Van Weelden said. "We want faculty and staff to feel supported. We're in it together."

A teaching colleague from down the hall of her school, Karen Miemis, drove down the Northway from the mountains this morning and walked several miles in the rain on DeAngelo's last stretch.

A main source of DeAngelo's support is her husband, Matt Paul, who drove her support vehicle, helping her across highway rotaries and keeping her supplies: trail butter, water, oranges, bananas, honey stingers, electrolyte-fueled drinks and water. His neon yellow jeep also held her different sneakers, flashlights, headlamps and safety vests.

After leaving the Capitol, Paul draped DeAngelo in a silvery space blanket to keep her warm as they walked slowly back to the jeep. Her cheeks were still bright pink from the flush of her walk and its enormous impact, but her legs were slowing down. Her right calf was cramping on this morning's walk and her left foot is swollen and blistered.

Just before getting into the vehicle, DeAngelo unfurled the silver cape and ran up a few steps to a monument in Washington Park, while some of her admiring groupies hummed the theme song to "Rocky."

The next step was to drive to her sister's house in Altamont, near Albany, where she could soak in a hot tub and have a triage crew work on her feet. Icing was imminent.

Then they would drive back to Saranac Lake, because DeAngelo has a math class to teach tomorrow morning.