National AFT President Randi Weingarten listens to a student’s question in Karie Hess’s first-grade classroom at Stapleton Elementary. Gary Herron photo.

It isn’t every day that a national president visits Rio Rancho, but such was the case April 9 when American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten came to town.
Former Rio Rancho Elementary teacher Stephanie Ly, now the American Federation of Teachers New Mexico president, and Rio Rancho School Employees Union President Billie Helean, who took the day off from her first-grade teaching duties at Stapleton Elementary, accompanied her. RRSEU Vice President Gino Satriana was also part of the entourage, which first visited the district’s transportation depot before making the short drive west on Northern Boulevard to Stapleton.
Awaiting their arrival, Stapleton Principal Cheryl Clark told the Observer, “We’re super-excited, really proud they’re coming here to see our school.”
As Weingarten observed, the school year has been “crazy and challenging.
“The challenging part has really been to make swift changes all the time, to move from all-virtual to in-person without disruption to the kids,” Clark said, adding, “We haven’t had any spread of COVID in the school.”
Stapleton Elementary, once overcrowded with 1,000 or so students until Rio Rancho Public Schools re-districted before Joe Harris Elementary opened, now has 759 students, with “around 200 doing virtual only,” Clark said.
In light of New Mexico Public Education Department mandates during the pandemic, she said, the school has done its best to maximize space for distancing students in classrooms. About four classrooms had a foldable wall removed “so we could go to double-sized rooms … build larger numbers of students in there and still do the distancing (of) at least 3 feet,” Clark said.
“I would say a huge ‘thanks’ to the staff, because they mold with everything — they’ve had to pivot and turn and adjust multiple times this school year, and they’ve just been phenomenal,” she concluded.
And, Weingarten noted before ending her visit with a live Facebook opportunity to “talk to all the teachers in America,” she wanted all to know, “We’re not interrupting school — we’re seeing what school is, what goes on in school. School comes first.”

Stapleton a good choice
Ly appreciated the efforts at Stapleton and other schools doing their best to cope with the times.
“What has happened in this district, which is great, is the district and the union have been collaborating since the initial shutdown in 2020. They have been working together to figure out, ‘How can we get our students to re-enter the buildings safely?’ and, ‘How do we transport them to and from school safely?’ she said. “So we’re excited to be here in a district where the district and the union have worked so well to make it happen.”
Ly is more than a union president: She’s the mother of two girls in RRPS buildings, although they had been learning virtually for a while.
“Now that it’s open, our girls are back full-time,” she said. “I’ll tell you what, my daughters are happy; they’re excited to be back. They feel safe. You know, kids can often be the most-honest critics, but they have said everyone is making them feel safe and they’re glad to be back.”
Back to her role as state AFT president, Ly said, “As a union, we are trying to lead by example. That’s why President Randi Weingarten said, ‘Let’s get in the schools and let’s talk and really show when people are wearing masks, and we have all the mitigation strategies in place, when people are vaccinated — we can safely re-open.”
Weingarten said she’s on leave from her New York City teaching job.
On this junket, she said, “I’ve been on the West Coast, or in the North and Southwest — five days, four states — to really say thank you to the essential workers and the front-line providers who have gotten us through much of this pandemic: nurses, other health-care providers, and being at the bus depot to say ‘thank you.’ And we wanted to have a school visit to see how things are going as we try to get more and more kids back to in-school learning.”
She heard students say they loved reading and “writing on paper,” missed seeing their friends while in virtual-only session, and many liked recess best. One boy said school was a way to “escape from drama.”
“(I wanted to) see for myself how it’s working and mirror that to those who are still afraid to see images of how that works,” Weingarten said.

Mission accomplished
“We know that in-school learning is vital; I would have told you that pre-pandemic,” she said. “Remote education is not a substitute for in-school learning, and so, here in Rio Rancho, what you have is both the road map for re-opening — including the mitigation, the access to vaccines, testing and a real collaboration between principal and staff to make it work. And you see the joy of kids, in terms of being back — they really want to be back with their friends.”
Weingarten told one classroom that she’d dreamed of being a teacher when she was a youngster, recalling hearing advice from her mother on a myriad subjects.
“My mom was a school teacher,” she said, remembering informing her mother, “Mom, you’re my mother, not my school teacher.”
From what RRPS Superintendent Sue Cleveland heard, Stapleton Elementary received high marks from Weingarten.
“I had a chance to meet with her,” Cleveland said. “We talked a little bit. I did a brief interview (with her media people). She was very complimentary and wished other districts could replicate (what we’re doing).”

National AFT President Randi Weingarten, left, and Stapleton Elementary teacher and Rio Rancho School Employees Union President Billie Helean listen as the school’s principal, Cheryl Clark, right, explains something during Weingarten’s visit to the school April 9. Gary Herron photo.

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Gary Herron | Observer staff writer