By Curt Yeomans
More than 200 new Clayton County teachers were treated on Tuesday to lunch, and a spiel about the benefits of joining the Clayton County Education Association at Jackson Elementary School in Jonesboro.
The 2,800-member group, which promotes itself as the county's largest educator's association, offered the new teachers free wall calendars, bottles of hand sanitizer, lanyards, and folding sunscreens for their cars.
The group is also the local affiliate of the National Education Association (NEA) and the Georgia Association of Educators (GAE).
As the teachers munched on chicken sandwiches and potato chips, and chugged down canned soft drinks, CCEA President Sid Chapman held a microphone and explained why the teachers should join his group. He also took some shots at the Metro Association of Classroom Educators (MACE), which also recruits Clayton County teachers as members.
"You want to belong to the best, and make no bones about it -- we are the best," said Chapman, as he walked around the lunchroom, trying to make himself heard over the casual conversations the new teachers were having with one another. "You don't want craziness. We're not the crazy one ... We're not the weak one, either."
Many of the new teachers said they have received information from several teacher's groups, such as CCEA, GAE, NEA, and the Professional Association of Georgia Educators (PAGE). They are also sorting through all of the information, and trying to figure out which organization does the best job when it comes to supporting teachers.
"You want fair representation for yourself and your family," said Lianna Thornhill, a new first-grade teacher at Hawthorne Elementary School. Thornhill, who was an education training coordinator for 12 years at the old Ford assembly plant in Hapeville until it closed in 2006, said she was familiar with the benefits of an employee's association, because she used to be a member of United Auto Workers (UAW) Local 882.
Chapman would not give an exact figure on how many of the 240 teachers who attended the luncheon ended up joining CCEA, but he said it was "a good percentage." He also said CCEA has gained more than 100 new members per year through luncheons which were held in previous years.
There are potential dangers associated with teaching in Clayton County schools, though. The school system is facing the threat of becoming the first school system to lose its accreditation in nearly 40 years. The Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS) will revoke the district's accreditation on Sept. 1, if the system cannot meet nine mandates for improvement.
"If a teacher goes to another school district after teaching in [an unaccredited] Clayton County for a few years, that other district may or may not recognize the years the teacher spent in this school system when it comes to pay scales," said Sandy Schwellinger, the associate executive director of the Georgia Association of Educators.
Despite the uncertainty which hangs over the heads of Clayton County teachers because of the ongoing accreditation crisis, some of the new teachers said it was the district's woes which attracted them to the county.
"I had heard about the accreditation situation through the internet, and honestly that's part of the reason why I wanted to teach here," said Heidi Roberts, a recent Louisiana State University graduate and a new art teacher at E.J. Swint Elementary School. "I wanted to help make a positive change."
Thornhill said she was very familiar with the county and its school system. In addition to working at the old Ford assembly plant for more than a decade, she also worked as a paraprofessional at Kemp Primary School during the 2007-08 school year.
Thornhill said teachers are needed in Clayton County more than ever because of the accreditation crisis. "Now is when the children need us the most," Thornhill said. "If you're really concerned about the welfare of the children, you'll stay around for their sake."