Teachers from Buncombe County and across the state marched on Raleigh in the March for Students, Rally for Respect on Wednesday, May 16, 2018.
Angeli Wright, email@example.com
RALEIGH – Thousands of teachers marched and rallied for more than eight hours on the lawns and steps of the legislative buildings Wednesday in a historic gathering to express worries over the state’s commitment to public education.
The March for Students, Rally for Teachers event was organized by the North Carolina Association of Educators and drew a crowd of nearly 20,000, double the number anticipated by the association earlier this month.
Why they’re marching
Teachers sought to spotlight growing gaps in the state’s education system and convince legislators to commit to change.
North Carolina ranks 37th among states for teacher pay and 39th in per-pupil spending, according to the educators association. The state also lags the national average on the ratio mental health counselors per student.
Buncombe County Schools and Asheville City Schools announced last week plans to close schools for the day to allow teachers, counselors and supporters to attend the event.
‘It is so powerful to see strength in numbers’
There were close to 500 attendees from Buncombe County representing an array of schools – Enka High, Asheville Middle, Erwin district schools, Reynolds and Roberson high schools, Emma Elementary, Eblen Intermediate, Koontz Intermediate, Estes Elementary, Asheville High and Evergreen Community Charter School, among others.
There was also a satellite rally in downtown Asheville for people who could not travel to Raleigh.
“It is so powerful to see strength in numbers as we come out in force for this one main issue of education that affects all corners of our state,” said Rachel Shelton, an English as a second language teacher at Enka Middle who left on a bus bound for Raleigh at 4 a.m. Buses were chartered by the Buncombe County Association of Educators and Asheville City Association of Educators.
Teachers who traveled from Buncombe said they felt inspired and full of renewed hope, after months of mounting threats made to schools in Western North Carolina have left many educators anxious and administrators scrambling to update security plans.
What happened after the march?
After marching to legislative buildings, teachers waited hours to squeeze into the General Assembly building. Only 3,000 people were allowed in at one time, which left thousands of people circling the buildings while chanting.
“This is what democracy looks like!,” ralliers chorused, “more teaching, less testing!”
Later in the afternoon, before the final rally with Gov. Roy Cooper, teachers met with their local representatives on the lawn of Halifax Mall and encouraged them to sign pledges of support with a list of demands curated by NCAE organizers.
Rep. Brian Turner, D-Buncombe, was the first to sign the pledge, which targeted teacher pay and adding school counselors, and spoke to teachers about their grievances.
“Despite how long you have all been out here today, I bet this is still a shorter day than when you are working in the schools,” Turner said to laughs. “Our counties are responsible for stepping in and filling the gaps where the state has left open, and I am here to assure you I am listening to you.”
Turner discussed his worries about funding cuts made to arts and exercise classes in favor of STEM programming – science, technology, engineering and mathematics. He also mentioned a special focus needs to be placed on elementary schools, because that is where a great work force starts, he said.
“Many legislators have no idea what’s happening in schools nowadays,” Turner said. “People serving our communities need to go into their schools and spend time there beyond just a photo opp to know what each individual school needs.”
Rep. Susan Fisher, D-Buncombe, wore all red in support of the Red for Ed movement, which has gained a following in other states.
Fisher made a point to talk to Buncombe teachers about the growing mental health crisis, and the increasing number of threats made by students to schools in WNC.
‘You are asked to do so much and the one thing we need you to be doing is counseling’
School social workers said oftentimes they spend their days monitoring students as they take state tests, as opposed to doing the job they were hired to do.
“We need you treating our children now more than ever,” Fisher said.
Lisa VonDohlen, a school social worker at Enka High, told Fisher that every day as she drives home she feels the weight of life and death situations of her students hanging over her.
“You are asked to do so much and the one thing we need you to be doing is counseling,” Fisher said. “We are going to address the need to add more counselors and school psychologists, remember that come November.”
VonDohlen said that in the two decades she has worked in the school system, she has never seen the mental health crisis in young students as severe as it is now.
“There is an unaddressed mental health and substance abuse issue seriously affecting kids,” VonDohlen said.
Rep. John Ager, D-Buncombe, also signed the petition and handed out free ice cream to teachers who visited his office.
Governor Cooper speaks on proposal calling for increase in teacher pay
Gov. Roy Cooper closed the advocacy day with a speech that garnered massive support from the thousands of teachers still standing despite the pouring rain and humidity. He wore a red tie in solidarity with the sea of red t-shirts in honor of the Red for Ed campaign.
Cooper talked about his budget proposal, which calls for an 8 percent average increase in teacher pay and giving every state-funded teacher a stipend of $150 to offset what they pay out of pocket on classroom and instructional supplies.
There is also $40 million safety proposal to boost the protection of students in vulnerable schools, like those with buildings that are a century old and were not originally designed to stop outside threats.
“My budget puts an extra $112 million to boost teacher pay, and when I say every teacher I mean every teacher,” Cooper said to cheers. “Including our veteran teachers, who often get neglected.”
We have to be willing to prioritize this and pay for it, not just talk about it, he said.
“Teachers teach for outcomes, which include better education for successful students,” Cooper said. “Better pay for teacher’s assistants and school personnel is one way to do it, but we also have to invest in digital learning and improve the physical conditions of our schools, hire more counselors, nurses, student resource officers and psychologists, and we need to give you help for school supplies because we know you are reaching into your own pockets.”
“My budget does all of that,” he said.
Cooper ended by reminding attendees that the true test of the movement led by North Carolina educators will come in the fall, when residents have the opportunity to vote for representatives who have pro-public school education solutions.
“Remember, remember, we vote in November!” thousands chanted as Cooper raised his fist in the air to cheers as he and his wife, the First Lady of North Carolina, Kristin Cooper, walked off stage.
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