NEW CASTLE COUNTY, DE -- No one fought harder than Local 762’s President Karen Kennedy when the district began laying off members of the Delaware Paraeducator Chapter Federation, an AFT Pennsylvania affiliate that has lost approximately one-sixth of its membership over the past three years.
After the second round of layoffs, which members fought with testimony at board meetings, letters to elected officials and press coverage, Karen had an epiphany.
She realized that the only way to save the valuable services her members provide to children inDelaware’s Brandywine School District was to demonstrate to teachers, administrators, parents, the school board and elected leaders know just how invaluable her members are.
Karen and her 100 members, who include bus aides and other paraprofessionals in the 11,000-student district, began a modest book-distribution program for disadvantaged children in BSD’s lowest-performing schools.
Teaming up with AFT’s First Book program, Karen and members organized not one but three book giveaways in 2014, focused on providing books to disadvantaged, elementary-age students in strategic grades.
“Paraeducators are key members of the education team, helping students master skills they will need to be successful,” Karen said. “But many people don’t know who we are or what we do. I just knew we needed to put our 100-member local on the map.”
Karen, a special education paraprofessional, and her members began organizing book giveaways – not massive undertakings but small events in one school at a time.
“For the first event, we drove to Philadelphia for a First Book warehouse and the union purchased five books for each student in the district’s early childhood program,” she said. (The First Book warehouse is kind of a giant pop-up store housing thousands of books donated by publishers.) Our initiative was launched to coincide with Reading is Fundamental Week.
“It was so successful, that word started getting out about the work we were doing, and other schools asked if we could hold an event at their school, too,” she said.
The first step for Karen and her para team is to meet with the school’s reading specialist and principal. “We let them know what we want to do and decide together which grades we wanted to work with. Our goal was to give a couple of books to each child and to target the grade levels that need help the most.”
At Harlan Elementary School they targeted second and fourth grades, purchasing from the union’s small treasury three books for each of the 200 students for “summer reading.” They distributed the books during the final week of the school year and invited the superintendent of schools and members of the School Board to select books from among those being given away to read to the children.
This fall, at Claymont Elementary, the event grew even bigger. Not only did Karen invite the superintendent and school board to help the “Reclaim the Promise of Public Education,” but she also reached out to the Delaware state representatives and senator who represent the district where Claymont is located, to read to the second- and third-grade students before helping to distribute 600 books to 200 early readers in nine classrooms, including two autistic classrooms.
“The last event was mind-blowing, with teachers, paraeducators, administrators and Democrat and Republican legislators all participating. And for the kids – it was like Christmas morning. I’ve never seen kids so excited about books!” Karen said.
Ever conscious of the different student reading levels, the team coordinates with reading specialists to make sure that books match the students’ reading levels.
Member involvement is crucial. Sorting and distributing the books is a major undertaking.
Karen and her team are already planning the next event at Maple Lane Elementary and, working with her members who are bus aides, are developing a program that might put books on school buses.
“We represent the bus aides, and sometimes there are behavior issues on school busses. So we are thinking about distributing books to keep children occupied during the ride home,” Kennedy said.
The Delaware Paraeducators Unit Federation got coverage for their book giveaways from WDEL and the Delaware News Journal.
“I wish we could do more, but we need time to replenish the Federation’s small bank account. But with just three events so far, we are building bridges in the community,” Karen said. “Most important, we’re helping our students become better readers.”