By Angel Boose

The Union Township Education Association (UTEA) was awarded $75,000 as an NEA Safe and Just Schools grant recipient for the 2021-22 school year. The NEA Safe and Just Schools grants set aside money to fund efforts to improve the relationships between school districts and their local communities.

During the 2020-21 school year, 56 grants were awarded to state and local affiliates across the country. The grants were awarded to fund projects to address indoor air quality and supplemental mental health services; to utilize the pillars of community schools to drive student, family, and community change; and to support affiliates in leading the charge on reopening issues surrounding health and safety.

During July 2020, UTEA started a social justice committee and sought funding from NEA for training to support its initiative. Through the process, trainees learned about the new grants.

For UTEA, the initial stage of its plan includes having one-on-one conversations to get to know more about UTEA members. It will be a self-assessment of who UTEA is, who the members are, and how members are involved in the community. A more complete understanding of the many ways members are working in the community will help the association’s members to work together more cohesively. Their plan also includes recruiting strong leaders in each school building, while simultaneously building relationships with members of the community, including parents and the PTA.

Funding from the NEA Safe and Just Schools grant will support the long-term goal of UTEA to have an allied health program for the community.

“We know parents struggle to keep up with their kids’ preventative care,” says UTEA President Ann Margaret Shannon. “The goal is to have a relationship with Atlantic Health to provide a medical clinic that offers late hours for parents whose jobs make it hard for them to get to preventive care appointments.”

Local education associations have begun thinking intentionally about what can be negotiated into contracts that benefits students for safer and more just schools. The UTEA hopes to work with their school board to implement their goals. The association hopes to foster a stronger relationship with its board through the work they will be doing with members and the community, for the greater good.

Members of UTEA have been engaging in formalized trainings with the NEA Institute to prepare to do the work associated with the funding. NJEA has assigned UTEA two consultants to assist them in handling all the grant encompasses, Maryann Woods-Murphy and Katherine Clark. Their work will be supported by Amanda Adams, an associate director in NJEA’s Professional Development and Instructional Issues Division, and Maryanne Rodriguez, a UniServ field representative in NJEA’s Region 15.

Trainees are learning how to assess the strength of their association as well as how to have conversations with members to gauge what they want. Most of the wants are currently focused on temperatures in classrooms, health care, and health and safety issues surrounding COVID-19.

“Anyone can participate in the NEA Institute,” says Amanda Adams, NJEA Associate Director, Professional Development and Instructional Issues. “It allows locals to build power and collaborate. It’s moving people away from doing things the way they’ve done them unsuccessfully, and it is definitely worth exploring. Coaching sessions are offered through the Institute, and NJEA will offer consultants to support any NJEA affiliates that want to get involved.”

Funds for the NEA Safe and Just Schools grants are no longer available for the 2021-22 school year, but NEA affiliates interested in applying for the 2022-23 school year should contact their UniServ field rep.

Angel Boose is a third-grade teacher at the Benjamin Banneker Academy in the East Orange School District. She is the vice president of the East Orange Education Association and an NJEA Communications Consultant.

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