Three in every four New York City public school students live in poverty, and one in every ten experience homelessness each year. As educators, we struggle every day against the many obstacles that poverty can place in the way of our students’ education, from trauma, food insecurity and uncorrected eyesight and hearing problems to chronic absenteeism caused by a lack of clean clothing, frequent illnesses and homelessness. We see with our own eyes the toll that the toxic stress of a precarious life in poverty takes on our students.
The UFT has a long and proud history of support for efforts to alleviate the effects of poverty on the education of our students, dating back to the earliest days of the union and our support for the More Effective Schools program.
A decade ago, the Unity leadership of the UFT took stock of what could be done, and decided to launch an equity strategy that would reduce barriers to learning – a network of ‘community schools’ in New York City, United Community Schools (UCS). Our UFT community schools intentionally serve under-resourced, vulnerable neighborhoods, where they provide ‘integrated wrap-around services’ designed to meet the educational, emotional, health and social needs of students and their families. Our schools function as hubs of community life, open well beyond normal school hours to provide community access to educational activities and services. These include after school programs, classes to learn English and job placement services. During the COVID pandemic, our schools have been centers for vaccination drives.
Today, UCS is the largest network of community schools in New York City, with 31 participating schools that touch the lives of 20,000 students. There is solid evidence that our schools make a difference: student attendance, parent engagement, and graduation rates have all improved. UCS has been nationally recognized by the U.S. Department of Education, and it stands as a model of what can and should be done in public schools serving communities with vulnerable populations.
It took hard work – a lot of hard work – to build and maintain United Community Schools. We had to hire the staff and assemble the infrastructure that would connect students and families with academic, social service and health care providers. We had to build in-school social and emotional supports for students. We had to set down roots in the community, establish organic ties with community organizations, and build working relationships with local businesses, faith-based institutions, and social service and health care providers. We had to raise funds for all this work. We had to use our political clout with elected officials to garner public resources for the project. UFT Unity did that hard work.
During the last decade that the United Community Schools has been built, the opposition groups in UFCUFT have not contributed to this work. Not one whit. The UFCUFT groups seem to think that angry tweets are a substitute for the ‘in the trenches’ organizing work that put together UCS, but if you search their thousands of tweets to find a mention of UCS, it will be in vain.
Now it’s election time, so the UFCUFT platform has a single line that states “expand community schools model with wraparound social, medical and mental health services.” It is one of a long laundry list of proposals in that platform, all made without even the slightest suggestion of how UFCUFT would achieve – or even prioritize – them. Perhaps if they had joined in the work of establishing and sustaining UCS, they might now have an idea on how to expand it that is more than a bullet point.
You can’t blaze a trail to more community schools with angry tweets. You can’t find a path to more community schools by making a spectacle of yourself at the UFT Delegate Assembly. And you can’t discover a passage to more community schools by offering a strike as the answer to every question, as if it were a totem that would magically transform the world. You have to do the hard, unglamorous work.
You are not a real social justice caucus if all you do is ‘talk the talk’ of social justice. If you really care about our students living in poverty and really believe the community schools can improve their education and their lives, you ‘walk the walk’ of social justice – you do the work.
UFT Unity: we do the work of social justice unionism.