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Moving Mountains for Our Students

When I applied to work in Jeffco School District’s Preschool, I intended to immerse myself in the classroom to see if I would enjoy teaching. I never would have envisioned that within my second year, I would be fighting to join the union. There wasn’t really one thing that made me feel like I wanted representation, instead the reason behind my motivation was more due to an ongoing build-up of unacceptable working conditions for both myself and the kids in my classroom. It was the lack of direction, organization and communication from the Early Learning Office; our inadequate class budgets and the expectation for teachers to pay for supplies out of our own pockets; my kids eating off copy paper on the dirty floor during the height of COVID-19; and after being ignored by the Early Learning Office for months, being told indirectly that I would be called on to sub in any classroom around the district during the most dangerous point of the pandemic.

The disrespect, isolation, and suppression that I felt, along with watching my students endure conditions that could’ve been avoided, pushed me to reach out to the teachers’ union. I knew that they did not represent classified staff, but I pled with them to let me in anyway. While I waited for a response and debated quitting my job, I sent out an email over the district’s preschool distribution list, hoping to find anyone else in preschool who felt as fed up and frustrated as I did. The responses that I received shocked me. There were preschool educators all over the district who shared their stories with me. Many of these stories felt familiar, but many of them were much worse than my experience. I started by fighting for myself and my students, but by this point I was fighting for the preschool educators across the district.

Alizay Furtado, an organizer from the Jefferson County Education Support Professionals Association (JESPA), reached out and told me that they wanted to create a new chapter for preschool, but first a majority of support from our work group was needed. JESPA staff and I canvassed schools and through that process, I came to meet six of the strongest women I’ve ever known: Nikki Wilson, Tonya Toller, Morgan Canjar, Sarah Smith, Carrol Barreras, and Kathleen Mess. Each represented countless other educators who felt unheard, bullied, scared, fed up, and angry at the state of their work environments. Together we created an unstoppable organizing team of delegates that we jokingly named “The Pre-K 7”. With JESPA’s help, we stuffed envelopes, met with preschool teachers, and made phone calls seeking others who wanted to join our fight. Within a few months we had enough signed union cards to present majority support to our new superintendent.

Getting recognized was a much more complicated task than any of us had imagined and to top it off, we only had a few weeks left in the school year to get it done. We were met with one roadblock after another, but each time we encountered resistance, Alizay and our delegate team would power through by marching, rallying, and teaming up with Coloradans for the Common Good who helped us connect to educators, parents, community leaders, and school board members. The most common thing we heard from preschool educators was that they felt unheard and neglected by the district so you can imagine how powerful it felt to find out that our supporters were flooding voicemails and sending hundreds of emails to district officials demanding that they recognize preschool educators. In the end, we were forced into an election that was held over the last days of the school year. Within the first six hours of the election, we gained majority support of our work group and by the end of the election, we had a supermajority. On Jun. 6, the Jefferson County Public Schools school board voted to recognize preschool educators.

Sitting on the brink of watching preschool educators written into the JESPA contract, I find myself feeling hopeful. The fight for fair working conditions and good learning environments for our students is never-ending and my biggest hope is that more educators and support staff join a fight of their own. Of course, the more people that join the union, the stronger we become, but I hope every person that feels devalued working in a school district starts to speak up. I can’t fully explain the transformation I have experienced by standing up and saying enough is enough, but I can say that I no longer feel unheard. I have found an entire community of influential people who care about improving the school district for both the employees and the students. I would love for more people to experience this reality. As far as preschool goes, those educators can achieve anything they put their minds to and I have no doubt that with the power of our union, they will continue to move mountains for years to come.

Hannah Mauro is an Early Childhood Instructional Partner in Jefferson County and proud member of JESPA.