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Arizona students back in class after 6-day teacher walkout

Arizona students back in class after 6-day teacher walkout
The Associated Press

PHOENIX (AP) — Hundreds of thousands of Arizona schoolchildren returned to classes Friday, a day after state lawmakers approved 20 percent raises for teachers and they ended a six-day walkout that shuttered most classrooms around the state.

Teachers at a high school in the Phoenix suburb of Mesa lined up to greet students with cheers and handshakes. An elementary school principal greeted students with high-fives on the other side of metro Phoenix.

Educators returning to work at San Marcos Elementary in the suburb of Chandler traded in their red protest t-shirts for shirts with their black and blue school colors and its bear mascot. Wearing sunglasses and smiles, they hugged and wrapped their arms around each other’s shoulders to start the day.

In Jennifer Boettcher’s first-grade class, students had a breakfast of muffins, milk and juice waiting for them.

“I’m so happy to see you, you all grew this much,” Boettcher said while raising her hands. She checked their meal progress as she called out names for attendance, ensuring one student had a juice carton in front of her and reminding another to hang up his jacket.

Outside, preschool students populated the playground for the first time since last Thursday. They raced down slides and soared on a swing set, the sound of their giggles mixed with the chirping birds while a teacher called out to them by name.

Jolene Gallup, a media specialist and reading intervention teacher, was thrilled to come back. She said the #RedforEd movement was empowering, as she’s been teaching in Arizona for 20 years and has seen budgets slashed.

She sees around 100 to 110 students a day, and says the school, with a population of around 600 preschoolers through sixth graders, is like a family. That closeness made the choice to walkout difficult, she said.

“The whole time you were down at the Capitol and seeing the signs and seeing the marching, your thoughts were with the kids in the classroom,” she said.

Strike organizers called for an end to the walkout Thursday after an all-night legislative session resulted in a 20 percent pay raise by 2020. Most districts planned to reopen Friday but Tucson’s largest district said it would resume classes next week, saying it would take time to ensure all 86 school sites would be up and running.

The education funding plan, signed by Gov. Doug Ducey, awarded teachers a 9 percent raise in the fall and 5 percent in each of the next two years. Those increases, which are in addition to a 1 percent raise granted last year, will cost about $300 million for the coming year alone.

Education cuts over the past decade have sliced deeply into Arizona’s public schools. Teachers wanted a return to pre-recession funding levels, regular raises, competitive pay for support staff and a pledge not to adopt any tax cuts until per-pupil funding reaches the national average.

The new funding package provides schools with a partial restoration of nearly $400 million in recession-era cuts, with a promise to restore the rest in five years. Other cuts remain in place.

The Arizona walkout was part of a bubbling national uprising over low teacher pay and funding. The movement started in West Virginia, where a strike resulted in a raise, and spread to Oklahoma, Kentucky and, most recently, Colorado.

Arizona Education Association President Joe Thomas said educators should now focus on a campaign for a November ballot measure that would seek more education funding from an income tax increase on the wealthiest taxpayers.

“The budget is a significant investment, but it falls far short” of what the movement demanded, he said.

At Oakwood Elementary School in the Phoenix suburb of Peoria, Principal Shawn Duguid was dressed in a purple shirt in the spirit of one of the school’s colors. As he does every day, Duguid was in front of the campus gates before they opened to welcome the roughly 1,000 students between kindergarten and eighth-grade. Some parents came with boxes of doughnuts and other goodies for the faculty after the six-day absence.

Other parents, however, were still upset about the impact of teacher walkouts.

Charlene Schafer, who was dropping off her two sons, said she is “pretty ticked off.”

“They should have been in school. They were by themselves at home,” she said.

Terri Kiley, who was walking her daughter in, said she sympathizes with the teachers but wishes they could use other strategies.

“I understand what they’re trying to do. But I didn’t like that they shut down the school.”

For 14-year-old Sariah Stone, finding motivation to get out of bed after six days off and no homework wasn’t the easiest.

“I thought I was on summer vacation,” the eighth-grader said.

Still, she is happy to be back. She missed “just being here, the daily routine. It just felt weird not coming back.”

In Cindy Cordts’ third-grade class, children immediately sat down with a worksheet. Cordts warmly welcomed them back, briefly acknowledging the hiatus as “kind of like we had an extra spring break.”

“It’s very hard to put into words how excited I am to be back with my kiddoes,” said Cordts, who has been teaching for 33 years. “I have missed them absolutely greatly and we’re ready to finish the year strong.”

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Associated Press writers Anita Snow, Paul Davenport and Bob Christie contributed to this report.

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