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Posted at 04:00 PM ET, 01/24/2012

Teacher from troubled district to sit with Michelle Obama at State of Union (updated)

This post has been updated.

A teacher from a Pennsylvania school district whose union voted to work for free when the system ran out of money said she would “humbly” sit with first lady Michelle Obama at tonight’s State of the Union address.


First lady Michelle Obama. (KEVIN LAMARQUE - REUTERS)
Sara Ferguson has been teaching for some 20 years at an elementary school in the Chester Upland School District, where money ran out because of a combination of drastic budget cuts, poor management, student attrition to charter schools and other factors.

Union members agreed to stay on the job as long as possible, and, finally, the state, which had been reluctant to help, found several million dollars. But the amount is hardly enough to keep the district operating for the rest of the school year.

Ferguson said in an interview that she was “stunned and thrilled” by the invitation and that she had “humbly” accepted. She said she viewed the invitation as evidence that President Obama cares about the plight of her school district and others that have faced extreme budget cuts and are financially strapped.

“This invitation means that education is important to our president and the success of students is important to our president,” she said. “Equity of education across the country for all students regardless of their zip code is important to our country.”

Ferguson was featured in a Philadelphia Inquirer story earlier this month about Chester Upland, where her grandfather, mother, father and aunt had also been teachers.

“I can’t remember ever wanting to be anything else,” she said. “In fact I don’t think I ever really knew there was another career option.”

The attitude of her union, the Pennsylvania State Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, is a stark contrast from the usual depiction of union members who are portrayed as inflexible and self-interested by some school reformers who are determined to crush teachers unions.

According to Ferguson, it was an easy decision for union members to agree to stay on the job and work for free when it became clear that money was running out and there was no guarantee of state assistance.

“We stood together as teacher and support personnel and we decided together that we were going to work as professionals to provide our students with what they deserve, and that’s their education,” she said. “Once you get into school and you get into the classrooms and see those children, you aren’t thinking about money. It’s not dollars and cents.”

Ferguson said that students and teachers don’t spend time worrying about what is coming next.

“The students look toward us and if we are upset and we are nervous and we are anxious, then they are upset and nervous and anxious,” she said. “But if we come in every day as professionals and are prepared to teach then they take their seats and are prepared to learn. And that’s what happens.”

In a previous post on The Answer Sheet, another Chester Upland teacher wrote in an e-mail that he hoped people outside Pennsylvania would figure out how to help the school district because local and state officials had failed. You can read that e-mail here.

The White House, in choosing Ferguson, described her as someone who "sees education as a vehicle of change in our society, and feels privileged to have touched the lives of so many students."

It's custom that the White House invite people with inspiring stories to sit with the first lady as her guest to watch live as the president gives his annual address to Congress. Two years ago, a Northampton County woman, Tina Dixon, was invited after she had given the president a note from her daughter when he was visiting Allentown that asked Obama to pray for her family.

By  |  04:00 PM ET, 01/24/2012

 
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